In Colorado, some social distancing restrictions to continue for months, at least

Until there's a COVID-19 cure or vaccine, policies to limit spread of coronavirus will remain

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When Gov. Jared Polis announced the extension of Colorado's stay-at-home order in a statewide television and radio address April 6, he took on a historical tone.

“This April will always be known as the lost month,” Polis told Coloradans, explaining the order would last through April 26.

But the lost time spent in a life altered by COVID-19 could add up to many months — or more than a year — depending on when a treatment or vaccine arrives.

“The challenge is, how do we create a sustainable way to live for the many months that the virus will be with us,” Polis said at an April 15 news conference. “The answer is not staying at home for many months. It's not possible. It's not possible economically — people need to support themselves, businesses need to exist, and it's not possible psychologically. Humans are social animals.”

The governor outlined how the state is working to balance the need to return to normalcy with the imperative to contain the coronavirus to a level that doesn't exceed Colorado's health care capacity, leading to more deaths.

Just as the state issued social distancing measures gradually — such as shutting down dine-in service at bars and restaurants, suspending ski area operations and ordering Coloradans to stay home except for essential reasons — the restrictions also will be lifted in pieces, Polis said. Social distancing is a public health term that means reducing face-to-face contact.

Unlike flipping a light switch, the transition will “look more like a light dimmer,” Polis added.

That process could last for “two months, three months, 10 months — however long it is before there's a cure or vaccine,” Polis said.

It could take between 12 and 18 months until a vaccine is ready for mass use, according to national news outlets. A viable treatment could take months.

Ending Colorado's stay-at-home order doesn't mean restaurants will be full, Polis told reporters April 13. And even down the road, relying to some extent on working from home and staggering shifts to reduce contact will likely be the norm, Polis said April 15. A ban on large gatherings will likely continue for months.

“Of course, there could be the need to reinstate measures, including the stay-at-home measures” if the virus' spread is dire enough, Polis said. “But we all hope to avoid those types of draconian measures.”

Virus could plateau, for now

It remains to be seen more clearly what trajectory the state is on in light of Coloradans staying at home. Within the next five days, that picture should become clearer, Polis said April 15. As of mid-April, additional COVID-19 cases per day — based on the start date of people’s illness — has shown a sharp decrease, from 394 added cases on March 30 to 45 added cases on April 14.

But it's also unclear what the trajectory of cases will look like once the stay-at-home order is lifted. Public health officials are unsure of whether cases will start to increase at a higher rate than over the past couple weeks once the order ends, Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, told reporters in a conference call.

To keep Coloradans safe while relaxing or lifting some social distancing policies, the state aims for a strategy of mass testing coupled with expanded contact tracing — keeping track of who has been exposed to COVID-19 — to appropriately isolate and quarantine people to control the spread of the virus.

Officials are working on building capacity for mass testing across the state, according to Scott Bookman, incident commander for the state health department. It’s unclear when mass testing will begin.

Outbreaks continue

As of April 15, Colorado's tally of COVID-19 cases rose to 7,941 across 56 counties, with 1,556 hospitalized, 329 deaths and more than 39,500 people tested. There have been 78 outbreaks at residential and non-hospital health care facilities, such as senior homes.

More attention has been focused on those outbreaks in recent weeks. The vast majority of deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in people 70 or older, according to a presentation from the governor's office.

Data show that Colorado's social distancing has slowed the spread of COVID-19 and has delayed the peak — the time when the number of reported cases reaches its highest point — to some degree.

For a while in March, the number of COVID-19 cases in the state was doubling every 1 1/2 days. As of early April, cases were doubling roughly every six days, according to state officials.

The peak “could be anywhere from May until later in summer, and we hope to narrow that down,” Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, told reporters on April 6.

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