Jeffco public health officials are warning residents to exercise caution and avoid gatherings after the county has repeatedly reached new highs for new COVID-19 cases in a two-week period during recent days.
The latest high was reached on Monday when the county registered 860 new cases over the preceding two weeks. That is also more than double the two week totals the county was consistently seeing in late August and early September, when the two-week new case totals tended to be in the upper 300s.
That latest two-week case number is alarming to officials who say it puts the county on the verge of being downgraded to the “high risk” safer-at-home level 3 on the state's COVID-19 dial, which could lead to the state imposing tighter restrictions for businesses.
Jody Erwin, the deputy director of Jefferson County Public Health, expressed concern about the rise in case counts in a briefing he gave to the Jeffco commissioners on Tuesday. It was the first time a member of JCPH had briefed the commissioners since the retirement of former JCPH Executive Director Mark B. Johnson earlier this month. Johnson has given bi-weekly briefings on the county's COVID-19 status to the commissioners throughout the pandemic.
“When (Johnson) asked me to put this on my calendar about three weeks ago, I'd hope I would be able to come to you and congratulate us all for moving into protect-our-neighbor status,” said Erwin. “But clearly that's not the case — our case trend has dramatically taken a turn for the worse.”
Erwin said Jeffco's rise in new cases is consistent with rises being seen in counties throughout the state, and particularly in the Denver metro area. Hospitalizations also are increasing both in the county and throughout the metro area, although Erwin said those “increases are not nearly as bad as they were in April and May.”
According to Erwin, data obtained by JCPH contact tracers suggests most of the cases can be attributed to three main activities: backyard gatherings, students returning to higher education and out-of-state travel. He also said the county has seen a particularly large jump in cases among those age 18-24, although there have also been some new outbreaks in nursing facilities.
“My big concern right now is the holidays,” said Erwin. “It'd be incredibly frustrating to be downgraded to level three during the holidays, especially on our retailers and businesses, but also on our health care workers.”
Many health care workers had to work mandatory overtime shifts at the start of the pandemic and Erwin said it would be “unfortunate” to see them have to do that again.County attorney Kym Sorrells said that if the county were to be downgraded to safer-at-home level 3, which would happen if the county were to measure 1,000 or more new cases in a two-week period, the state would give the county a few weeks to bring its numbers back in line with those required to qualify for level two.
However, if the county were unable to do so, it would lose its existing variance from certain health order rules and be subjected to the more stringent level three requirements for crowd size. That means that indoor events, which can currently have up to 100 people, would be limited to 25 while outdoor events that are now limited to 175 people would be to 100 people.
Certain businesses, such as gyms, would also be required to close their doors altogether until cases dropped while other businesses would see their capacity reduced from 50% to 25%.
“Businesses are hoping to open up more rather than continue to be limited to 50% capacity,” said Sorrells. “If they have to go down to 25% that's really probably going to be a life or death analysis for some of these businesses and I don't know how some of them are going to survive.”
To slow the spread of COVID-19 in Jeffco, Erwin said residents should recommit to mask wearing, social distancing, washing their hands and other established behaviors. He also said it is important for residents to get the flu vaccine as reducing the spread of flu could help to reduce pressure on hospitals.
“I think if anyone needs any motivation to help tamp down on those COVID-19 numbers, I think this will be it,” said Jeffco Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper of the possible consequences for businesses of the county dropping to level 3. “Especially when we think about how hard our community has worked to ensure those numbers stay low.”
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