Colorado to loosen restrictions in color-coded COVID-19 dial

New-case threshold eased, putting Denver metro counties in yellow or close to blue

Posted

UPDATE: Colorado announced that the final "dial 2.0" changes take effect at 9 a.m. Feb. 6. Compared to the draft, the final rules increase capacity for restaurants in level yellow and specify that 5-Star-certified businesses in yellow counties can't automatically operate at level blue. See our explainer here.

In the latest ratcheting down of Colorado's COVID-19 restrictions, the state public-health department announced plans to drastically ease the limits that allow counties to remain in certain color-coded levels of coronavirus restrictions.

The proposed “dial 2.0” changes would put Denver metro counties in level yellow, likely promising loosened business-capacity restrictions. Some would even sit close to entering the notably low blue level.

The move comes as the number of vaccinated Coloradans continues to grow, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the department's executive director, said in a news release.

“This updated proposal is based on Colorado's disease and vaccination rates, plus input from local public health agencies and local governments, and we are seeking the public's help to refine it further,” Hunsaker Ryan added in the Jan. 30 afternoon announcement.

The department gave Coloradans two days to submit comments on the proposed changes. The public was able to leave comments until 5 p.m. Feb. 1 on this form.

View the full proposed changes here. The final changes were to be available shortly after the comment period closed.

The state's COVID-19 dial is the set of restrictions counties must follow based on local virus spread. The level a county qualifies for on the dial generally depends on the county's rate of new cases, its percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, and whether hospitalizations are increasing, stable or declining.

The current version of level red — a relatively new addition that took effect Nov. 20 in metro Denver and other areas of the state — banned private gatherings and indoor dining at restaurants, and tightened capacity limits at some types of businesses. Red is the second-highest level next to purple, a stay-at-home order. Eventually, more than half the state's 64 counties operated in level red.

Citing improving virus trends, Gov. Jared Polis on Dec. 30 announced that he told the state public-health department to move counties from red to orange effective Jan. 4 — even though many didn't meet requirements for level orange according to the dial system.

Weeks later, roughly half of Colorado's counties still had “incidence rates,” or rates of new cases, that meant they should technically be in level red, according to a chart in the draft of the proposed changes. The data was updated on Jan. 27, the chart says.

Now, the state public-health department intends to greatly relax the requirements for new-case rates that correspond to some of the dial's six levels. Other levels' thresholds will see less dramatic changes.

Under the current dial system, if a county crosses 350 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period, that generally requires the county to move to level red, although state officials, including Polis, haven't held firm to that guideline.

The COVID-19 dial public health order — the document that outlines how the dial works — gives the state public-health department flexibility in choosing to change a county's level.

“CDPHE reserves the right to move counties one or more levels more quickly as circumstances warrant,” one part of the public health order says.

In what appeared to be partly an effort to align the dial system closer to how state officials have actually applied it, the line a county needs to cross to enter level red was proposed to change drastically. Rather than 350, the threshold would essentially change to 1,000. The line for level orange, the level nearly all counties were operating in as of Jan. 31, was 175. Now, it could change to 600. Level yellow's threshold could change from 75 to 200.

The state plans to start measuring new-case rates in seven-day periods rather than 14-day chunks, so technically, the new thresholds are about 500 for red, 300 for orange and 100 for yellow over seven-day windows.

The limits for blue and the lowest level, green, would basically stay the same. Qualifying for level green, known as “protect our neighbors,” involves different criteria such as supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE, according to the draft of the new rules.

A county could only land itself in level purple, a stay-at-home order, if hospital capacity risks being breached, according to the current dial system. The new rules could tweak that standard so that a county would only enter a stay-at-home order if statewide hospital capacity risks being breached.

Under the new rules, limits on COVID-19 test-positivity rates would become stricter. For example, rather than a limit of 10% test positivity to remain in level yellow, counties could only remain in yellow with positivity rates up to 7.5%.

“Testing is an important containment strategy, and we want to encourage counties to continue to test,” the draft of the new rules says.

State officials met with several groups to discuss the potential changes, including local public health agencies, county commissioners, mayors and city managers, the draft says.

“The dial has been a useful tool in helping us to manage our response to the pandemic, but it needs to be updated based on lessons learned over the past five months,” John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health Department, said in the news release.

New levels and '5-Star' businesses

The proposed rules would move some Denver metro counties from orange down one level to yellow, and other nearby counties would stand closer to moving another notch down to blue.

As of Feb. 1, the state's website listed Adams County's incidence rate at 338, Arapahoe's at 353, Douglas' at 314, Denver's at 314 and Broomfield's at 338. Those counties, all in level orange under the current rules, could move to yellow under the new framework.

Jefferson County sat at 284 as of Feb. 1, so if the virus' spread continued to drop and Jefferson's rate dipped to 200, the county could end up in level blue soon. Elbert County sat even closer at 236.

Those are rough estimates using two-week incidence rates, while the new framework would measure trends in one-week rates.

Across the state, most counties are expected to be in orange or yellow, with some in blue, once the new dial system takes effect, the draft says.

The proposed rules arrive amid confusion regarding the state's 5-Star State Certification Program, under which a business can operate with expanded capacity if it follows stepped-up COVID-19 safety protocols. The 5-Star program allows qualifying businesses to follow restrictions that are one level less severe than they otherwise would need to based on their county's color level on the dial.

Although the state manually moved counties from red to orange effective Jan. 4, counties still needed to meet the orange requirements in earnest before 5-star certified businesses could operate one level lower — at level yellow — according to the state public-health department.

Now, under the proposed rules, 5-Star businesses would be still allowed to operate one level lower on the dial than they otherwise would. That raises the possibility that 5-Star businesses in many metro counties that would move to yellow could operate at blue restrictions.

The businesses may not operate at green, or “Protect Our Neighbors,” restrictions unless the county is formally in the Protect Our Neighbors level, the draft says.

More changes on way in spring, summer

The proposed modifications wouldn't change each color level's capacity restrictions for businesses and other settings, and they include no changes to school settings.

For a complete list of capacity restrictions in each level, click “level restrictions” below the map on the state's COVID-19 website here.

“Dial 3.0 will occur in the spring, and we will seek input for this evolution and again for an update this summer,” the draft framework says.

A final update to the dial is expected to happen in early summer, the draft adds.

The proposed winter changes are an effort to “continue to balance disease transmission with economic hardship,” the draft framework says.

“Our top priority has always been to prevent a breach of the hospital system. With vaccine distribution and higher levels of immunity in our 70+ population, there is less pressure on the system,” the draft adds.

Since a post-holiday spike in new cases has appeared to subside, the rate of daily new cases in Colorado has continued to fall again in recent weeks, a chart in the draft shows. Hospitalizations have also fallen on a generally steady trend since early December, another chart shows.

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