Colorado urges cancellation of gatherings over 250 people, enlists more medical help as COVID-19 cases rise

Thousands of Coloradans likely have the virus, governor says

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As the number of Colorado's confirmed COVID-19 cases rose to 72, Gov. Jared Polis issued guidance for the cancellation of public gatherings with more than 250 people unless they can ensure small groups will stay 6 feet away from each other.

“We want to promote awareness, but not panic,” Polis said at a news conference the morning of March 13. He added: “Either you'll get it, a friend will get it or a family member will get it.”

In areas with no evidence that person-to-person spread of COVID-19 is occuring, events of fewer than 250 people can still be held. But those who feel sick, have recently traveled outside the country or may have been near someone with COVID-19 should not attend, according to the state. People older than 65 and people with underlying chronic conditions should also avoid the event.

If there is some evidence that COVID-19 is spreading from person to person in the community, cancellation is still suggested for events of fewer than 250. If there's widespread person-to-person transmission of the disease in a community, events are required to be canceled or postponed.

Many cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a widespread coronavirus, are in the Denver metro area. Of the overall total, eight people were hospitalized, and three of them were in critical condition as of Polis' address.

More than 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild and can be treated with over-the-counter medication, and most will recover on their own, Polis said.

Still, the state continued to expand its efforts as wider community spread — large-scale virus transmission between people in many areas — became a near certainty.

“In all likelihood, there are hundreds, most likely thousands of Coloradans who have coronavirus” who have not been tested or whose tests are pending, Polis said.

The governor had already announced rules for K-12 school closures, visitation to senior facilities and actions to ensure Coloradans can afford getting tested for COVID-19.

The state Legislature plans to adjourn until the end of March. The body was about halfway through its regular session — the four-month period of the year in which it passes laws.

Higher testing capacity

As the federal government faces criticism over the speed and breadth of its testing capabilities, Colorado has collected more than 10% of the nation's total number of tests, Polis said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “announced 11,000 Americans have been tested,” Polis said, while the state has “collected tests for more than 1,500 people.”

“We hope to be an example in the nation of taking the steps we need to minimize impact on our vulnerable populations,” the governor later added.

In Pitkin County, where at least 10 people — mostly out-of-state visitors who had contact with an Australian visitor — were confirmed to have COVID-19, local testing for the virus was set up but later discontinued. Pitkin County Public Health later said on March 12 that it is “reevaluating” its strategy for testing.

A drive-up lab set up in east Denver had collected samples for more than 650, Polis said.

UPDATE:The state's drive-up lab has moved and will continue to move through the state. Private labs can perform the test too. See recent details here.

Due to weather-related concerns, the state postponed testing at that site to March 14, weather permitting. Cold temperatures can reduce effectiveness of equipment that keeps staff from being exposed to the virus, a state news release said.

Testing will take place from noon-2 p.m. March 14 and can serve the first 100-150 people in line, the release said.

Colorado now has capacity for private labs to conduct testing as well, and anyone with symptoms or who believes they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should call or email their doctor first and obtain a doctor's order for testing.

Always call first before reporting to a health care facility for testing, the release said.

The state also activated the National Guard, which has more than a dozen medics being trained to enable more testing around the state and to train other local medical providers on establishing their own testing labs.

More medical professionals

At the news conference, Polis announced executive action to cut “through red tape” so that medical professionals who are licensed in other states but reside in Colorado can practice medicine here to address the strain on the state's health care system.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has also authorized every paramedic and emergency medical technician, or EMT, in the state to be able to administer the COVID-19 test.

Even in Italy — where businesses were ordered closed amid the COVID-19 outbreak — grocery stores and pharmacies are open, but it would be “prudent” for Coloradans to get extra food and supplies, Polis said.

The state Division of Insurance has allowed seniors to get an extra month's supply of prescription medications.

More spread

Of Colorado's new cases, at least four are evidence of community spread in the Denver metro area, Polis said. The state already confirmed evidence of community spread in a number of mountain communities.

Limited community spread means cases and outbreaks in areas where people became infected and the source is unknown. When it's more widespread, it means cases and outbreaks in many communities where the virus is spread between people. 

Colorado is seeing limited community spread at this point, Polis said March 13.

The 72 cases in the state as of March 13 mostly ranged in age from 30s to 70s, with three teens, four in their 20s and four in their 80s. The total included 14 out-of-state visitors.

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