Colorado’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 6,000 on Monday as hospitalizations continue to slowly trend downward and the state further relaxed public health restrictions, allowing for additional restaurant capacity and a later last call in some areas.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 362 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon. That’s a little less than one-fifth of the number who were hospitalized on the peak day of the last surge, in early December, though the number has fallen more slowly in recent weeks.
Deaths due to COVID-19 in Colorado reached 6,022 on Monday, according to state data.
New deaths have dropped to about 40 per week in the second half of February, from a high of 478 in the week ending Dec. 6. Hopefully that trend will continue as more-vulnerable people are vaccinated, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Monday evening, the state health department announced it had further loosened the COVID-19 restrictions governed by its color-coded dial framework, moving last call for alcohol later, allowing restaurants to host more people and making it harder to move counties to more restrictive levels.
For Denver, which is at Level Yellow, that means diners now can order drinks until 1 a.m. rather than be cut off at 11 p.m., and restaurants and concerts can seat up to 150 people. Restaurants in Denver with the state’s 5-Star certification can operate at Level Blue, which now means a 2 a.m. last call and up to 225 diners.
The changes include:
- Restaurants and seated indoor events, including casinos, can expand capacity to 150 people at Level Yellow and 225 people at Level Blue
- Last call for alcohol at restaurants moves back to 2 a.m. at Level Blue, 1 a.m. at Level Yellow, midnight at Level Orange and 10 p.m. at Level Red
- Restaurants with 5 Star certification in Level Blue counties may expand capacity limits by 50 people above the Level Blue caps
- Performers at events who wear masks must be at least 12 feet away from spectators, while performers who don’t wear masks must be at least 25 feet away from spectators.
- School kids can take masks off in the classroom to play a musical instrument that cannot otherwise be played while wearing a facial covering, but students must physically distance
The state reported 6,426 new coronavirus infections last week, suggesting the increase in cases at the end of February was more a bump than a trend. Overall, it appears cases have essentially plateaued, Carlton said.
“There’s a lot of good news in this data,” she said. “I think that the plateau in cases is cause for attention.”
The next challenge will be spring break, since people from areas with greater spread may travel to Colorado to ski, Carlton said. It may be difficult to tell if they brought the virus by looking at the statewide data, though, since states take their breaks at different times.
It’s still not clear what effect new variants of the virus are having in Colorado. The state has reported 190 cases stemming from “variants of concern,” meaning those that have worrisome properties like spreading more easily. The vast majority are from the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom and is believed to be more contagious and more severe.
The state health department announced Sunday night that three people linked to the Buena Vista Correctional Complex had tested positive for the B.1.351 variant, which was first found in South Africa. Two are employees, and one is an inmate. It isn’t clear if the employees caught the virus in the prison, or brought it from a nearby community, but it’s likely there are additional cases the state hasn’t found, Carlton said.
“We are probably only detecting the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Vaccines are highly effective against B.1.1.7, but may be less so against B.1.351. Still, it’s important to vaccinate people as quickly as possible, to limit the variants’ opportunity to spread and to decrease the chance of new ones developing, Carlton said.
“Every time a virus replicates (copies itself in a person’s cells), it has a chance to mutate,” she said.
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