Colorado seeing its ‘darkest days;’ governor warns people to limit gatherings to immediate household

November 13th, 2020
COVID-19 in Colorado continues to get worse. Here Dr. Abbey Lara works in an ICU room with two patients.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to set records in Colorado. Dr. Abbey Lara tends to patients in an ICU room at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital that now holds two patients as hospitalizations have skyrocketed. Lara is pleading with people to do the “easy thing,” and wear masks and limit social gatherings. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Colorado, like the rest of the country, could soon run out of ICU beds as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to set records, according to Colorado’s governor and top state health officials.

“These are our darkest days as a nation. These are our darkest days as a state,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a press conference on Friday afternoon.

Medical experts have been begging people to stay home and to stay out of bars and restaurants as the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 continues to rise. Meanwhile, the state’s public health officials are again planning to set up emergency hospitals at the Colorado Convention Center and at two other locations in Pueblo and Denver.

Polis said Coloradans should not put anyone in jeopardy – especially older family members – by holding Thanksgiving gatherings since the virus that causes COVID-19 is now spreading so fast and so widely that 1 in 58 people now have it in Adams County and 1 in 110 people throughout Colorado have the virus.

UCHealth leaders have seen the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 skyrocket from 33 patients in September to 360 patients as of Nov. 18.

Dr. Abbey Lara is double-board certified in pulmonary and critical care medicine, so she’s on the front lines of caring for the most gravely ill patients.

“If you’re sick with COVID-19 and you can’t breathe, we are the ones who are taking care of you,” said Lara, who cares for patients at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Lara also is the daughter of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and Lara became the first in her family to graduate from college, then from medical school, then to become an Associate Professor of Medicine in Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Lara is seeing far too many people of color who are critically ill with COVID-19 in the hospital. Latinos and African Americans have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic. Lara and fellow doctors also are seeing many more young people who thought COVID-19 was no big deal and now are in hospitals, afraid they’re going to die.

“Now, approximately 20% of our patients being admitted for COVID related disease are in the 20-to-29 age group. That’s a higher percentage than what we saw during the first surge and that’s very concerning,” Lara said.

She and other medical providers are begging people to change their behavior now to dramatically slow the spread of the virus. Otherwise, infections and hospitalizations will continue to skyrocket.

“We are committed to coming to work every day and to providing the best care of patients, but we’re human too, and we have a limited capacity. Pandemic fatigue is real, and it is affecting everyone, including the front-line health care workers in a very personal way,” Lara said.

She wants people to know that they can halt the spread of the virus, and every single person can take simple steps to save lives.

“Wearing a mask is incredibly easy. It’s easier than putting on a seat belt. And wearing a mask can prevent something that is incredibly hard’ — getting admitted into the hospital, being critically ill in the ICU on life support. It can prevent a death. Why not do the easy thing?”

COVID-19 in Colorado - Dr. Abbey Lara is an expert in pulmonary sciences and critical care. She works in an ICU that has filled up fast with COVID-19 patients as the cases has reached record numbers.
Dr. Abbey Lara is one of the doctors who is caring for patients in ICUs that are fast filling up with COVID-19 patients again in Colorado. Lara is one of many doctors who is pleading with people to do more to fight the pandemic. “It’s easier to wear a mask than to put on a seat belt,” said Lara. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Lara and her colleagues are answering your questions related to COVID-19. Their goal: helping you stay safe and avoid getting COVID-19 or spreading it to others as we all go through this very difficult third wave of COVID-19.

What you should know about coronavirus and COVID-19 in Colorado

What’s happening with COVID-19 now?

Colorado and many other states are shattering daily records for COVID-19 infections while hospitalizations are higher now than they were during the worst peaks of the pandemic in the spring. Click here to read more about the dangerous new spike in cases.

“The virus is far more dangerous now than in the summer. People are exhausted so they’re hanging out with neighbors and friends,” said Dr. Richard Zane, executive director of emergency services at UCHeath University of Colorado Hospital, and UCHealth’s Chief Innovation Officer.

“We are seeing people of all ages who are coming in critically ill,” Zane said. “People are so tired of the pandemic. I absolutely commiserate with them, but if the social gatherings continue, they are going to kill someone and people don’t want to do that. If we can just rein it in, we can save lives.

COVID-19 in Colorado. Nurse Olivia Thornton, left, and Dr. Abbey Lara, right suit up in protective gear as they prepare to tend to patients doubled up in an ICU room at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
COVID-19 in Colorado. Nurse Olivia Thornton, left, and Dr. Abbey Lara, right suit up in protective gear as they prepare to tend to patients doubled up in an ICU room at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

How can I see infection rates in my area?

Colorado has a color-coded, county-by-county tracker where you can see how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting different parts of the state. This is called the Colorado COVID-19 Dial Dashboard. State officials are using the data to determine which counties need to impose stricter restrictions as the pandemic worsens.

How can I find overall data about COVID-19 in Colorado?

For updated data in Colorado, click here. To see COVID-19 infections over time, click on Case Summary. For hospitalizations, you can click on Hospital Data. Testing information and positivity rates are also available. The COVID Tracking Project also summarizes data from Colorado and across the U.S. Click here to see Colorado data.

Asymptomatic COVID-19 infections are common in people of all ages, including children. Here, children wear masks while they color at school.
A recent study found that nearly 40% of children who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic. People of all ages can be asymptomatic and can still spread the virus to others. Photo: Getty Images.

How do infections in Colorado compare with those elsewhere in the country?

Infection rates are climbing at the fastest rate now in the middle and northern parts of the country, but infections are rising dramatically in nearly every region of the country. Click here and scroll down to see how infections rates vary by state. North and South Dakota are reporting the most infections per 100,000 people with more than 170 new infections per 100,000 people over the last seven days. Other states that are faring poorly now include Iowa, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Colorado isn’t far behind and the rate of spread is much worse in Colorado now than it was during the summer, with nearly 60 cases per 100,000 people now, up from a low of about two cases per 100,000 people in June.

I keep hearing about positivity rates. What does that mean and why are they important?

The positivity rate refers to the percentage of people who test positive for COVID-19 compared to all of the people who are getting tested in a community at one point in time. When the virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading very rapidly in a community, as it is now, the percentage of people who test positive increases. To prevent the rapid spread of the virus, public health experts want to drive positivity rates down below 5%. Currently in Colorado, the positivity rate is close to 12%. When the pandemic was most under control during the summer, that rate in Colorado was closer to 3%. As of Nov. 11, South Dakota health officials reported the highest positivity rate in the country of nearly 55%. Iowa, Missouri, Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas and Alabama also had positivity rates over 24%.

Where can I get tested for COVID-19?

UCHealth employee tests a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site.
Lauren Bomke, a EMT with UCHealth, tests a person for COVID-19 at the UCHealth Laboratory – Harmony Campus drive-thru testing site recently. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and want to get tested through UCHealth, you can get more information here.

For information on Colorado’s community testing locations, please click here.

What kind of tests are there?

There are tests that detect active COVID-19 infections as well as antibody tests, which can show if a person previously was exposed to the virus and developed antibodies. The most accurate COVID-19 test is a nasal swab test that must be sent to a lab. These tests are also known as PCR tests. That stands for polymerase chain reaction. Click here to learn more about various COVID-19 tests.

If I have antibodies, am I immune from getting the virus again? Is it safe for me to hang out anywhere or with older people or vulnerable people?

No. Some people have gotten COVID-19 twice. A positive result to an antibody test doesn’t mean you’re immune. It means that you had exposure at some point in the past to the virus. But researchers don’t know yet how long immunities last or how protective they are. Do not assume that it is safe for you to be around others — especially older people or those with underlying health conditions — simply because you got a positive result to an antibody test.

Are rapid COVID-19 tests safe and reliable?

Sign points to COVID-19 testing site.
UCHealth offers drive-through COVID-19 testing at several locations throughout Colorado. The health system will be opening a regional sample-collection center on Nov. 9 at The Ranch Events Center in Loveland.

These tests, which generate results in about 15 minutes, are safe. But, they are not always reliable. It’s possible to get false-negative results, which can be very dangerous. Health experts are urging people not to use a negative test result as confirmation that a person does not have COVID-19, and therefore won’t be able to infect anyone else.

“Lay people believe test results are accurate. But, this is not a great test,” Dr. Zane said. “We are now at the point where there’s a higher chance of a false negative than a true negative result.”

Is it true that people can test positive for COVID-19 without having any symptoms?

Yes. Studies have found that up to 50% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 didn’t have any symptoms and thus were “asymptomatic.” Click here to learn more.

“Asymptomatic spread definitely plays a role in community spread,” said Dr. David Beckham, an infectious disease specialist who studies viruses in a lab he runs at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Beckham said wearing masks is especially critical since many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and have no idea they have the illness and can spread it.

Is it safe to get together in person with friends and extended family for Thanksgiving this year?

Holiday gatherings in 2020 will need to be smaller and safer, like this celebration outside. A person hands green beans over a turkey at a table outdoors.
Holiday gatherings in 2020 will need to be more intimate. For Thanksgiving and beyond, celebrate with the people in your household or enjoy a small gathering outside. Photo: Getty Images.

No. Social gatherings are one of the key causes for the fall spike in COVID-19 cases that we are experiencing now. So, medical experts are advising people to plan for different Thanksgiving gatherings this year.

“Think small,” is the advice that Dr. Michelle Barron, one of the leading infectious disease experts in Colorado, is giving people.

“If you have any doubts, this is the year to skip it,” Barron said. “The potential consequences of you bringing flu or COVID-19 to your family holiday gathering or acquiring it and bringing it back home afterwards isn’t worth it.”

Barron and her colleagues are urgently calling on people to be as careful as ever. Wear masks. Wash hands. Avoid large groups and indoor gatherings. Practice social distancing and stay home whenever possible.

Think about the consequences of getting together. No one wants to see an elder in person for Thanksgiving and get them sick. Consider dining separately and playing games together via an online connection instead.

When will we have a vaccine?

A sign points to where the vaccine trial is being conducted.
UCHealth researchers in northern Colorado are recruiting participants for a study that will test a new COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Photo courtesy of UCHealth.

Two vaccines makers, Moderna and Pfizer, recently announced that their vaccines are up to 95% effective and other vaccines are moving forward with clinical trials to prove that they are safe and effective. Vaccine makers soon will seek emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to give vaccines to the public. Infectious disease experts believe we will have vaccines by the spring of 2021. But, it could take months to get enough people vaccinated. Click here to learn the basics about COVID-19 vaccines.

Should I wear a mask?

Absolutely. Evidence continues to grow that wearing masks helps reduce the spread of the virus. Until we have vaccines, masks are the most effective way to help prevent the spread of the virus. Public health experts have known for many months that people who wear masks are protecting others. New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also shows that the person wearing the mask will stay safer.

“We know this works. There’s no question about it,” said Dr. Barron.

People often are good about wearing masks in official settings where they are required, like schools, businesses and grocery stories. But many people relax in social settings and that’s dangerous.

“I get it. Everyone is tired, but the impact of not being careful is somebody potentially dying,” Barron said.

She recommends going back to the basic public health measures that have been proven to work: wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance from people outside of your home and avoiding in-person gatherings with people outside of your household.

Lara echoed Barron’s advice: “These infections are so easily preventable with hand-washing and mask-wearing. If you’re going to congregate with people, be outside.”

to prevent superspreader events, wear masks, avoid creeds, stay apart and gather outside. Some women wearing masks sit at an outdoor table.
Wearing masks and meeting people outdoors are two strategies for preventing superspreader events. Photo: Getty Images.

Does herd immunity work?

The concept of herd immunity is that enough people in the community either have had an illness or are vaccinated, and therefore can stay safe from an infectious illness. We are a long, long way from herd immunity when it comes to COVID-19, so herd immunity won’t yet protect us. Click here to learn more.

I hear that indoor air is more dangerous. Is that true?

Yes. Be very careful about gathering indoors with people. Experts now know that the virus is much more likely to spread indoors. Click here to learn about the dangers of indoor air. Click here to learn about six steps you can take to slow the spread of coronavirus airborne aerosols indoors.

Why are infections getting so bad now?

Public health experts predicted we would have a fall spike in cases. The same seasonal increase also occured during the 1918 flu pandemic. The virus spreads more easily indoors. It also may survive longer in colder, dry air. The other big problem is that many of us are experiencing “pandemic fatigue.” We are tired of being careful. More adults and young people are socializing. Many people who have COVID-19 may not realize that they are infected, since it’s so common to be asymptomatic. Social gatherings are fueling the major spread of COVID-19 this fall and winter. That’s why experts are so worried about additional infections throughout the holidays.

I hear that more people are surviving COVID-19 now. Is that true?

Yes, it’s true that doctors are getting better at caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients. In Colorado, among people who had to be hospitalized during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring, about 20% died. That percentage is closer to 5% now. That’s partly due to the fact that more young people are being hospitalized now. In general, they are healthier than older people, so they can recover better. But, some young people still are getting gravely ill. Dr. Lara says about 20% of COVID-19 patients at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital are now between the ages of 20 and 29.

“They’re coming in feeling fatigued with fevers, a hard, dry cough and shortness of breath,” Lara said.

Many have oxygen levels below 90%. Steroids can help some people with breathing difficulties. But, those who are really struggling will have to go to the ICU, where they’ll get high-flow oxygen, which pushes 40 to 60 liters of oxygen per minute.

Doctors have learned a great deal about how to better care for COVID-19 patients and there are more medications that they can use. Still, there is no cure. And the recovery from COVID-19 can be very difficult.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

    • Fever or chills
    • Cough
    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle or body aches
    • Headache
    • New loss of taste or smell
    • Sore throat
    • Congestion or runny nose
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Diarrhea

Learn more from CDC experts here.

How can I tell the difference between flu and COVID-19?

It’s extremely difficult to tell the difference between the two respiratory illnesses. If you have any doubts, call your medical provider. Medical experts have tests that can detect both flu and COVID-19.

What happens if I get COVID-19?

If you are experiencing relatively mild symptoms, stay home and isolate yourself. Click here for detailed advice.

If you have any concerns about your symptoms, call your medical provider’s office. Or, you can arrange for a Virtual Visit.

When do I need emergency care for COVID-19?

If you or a loved one is experiencing the following symptoms, do not delay. Call 911 and seek emergency medical care immediately.

Signs of a COVID-19 emergency include:

    • Trouble breathing.
    • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest.
    • New confusion.
    • Inability to wake up or stay awake.
    • Bluish lips or face.

How does COVID-19 spread?

The virus spreads from person to person through droplets. Lighter airborne aerosols also can also spread indoors, which makes poorly-ventilated indoor spaces dangerous. (Outdoors, breezes and wind usually blow these aerosols away.) The droplets spread primarily through coughing and sneezing when people are in close proximity to one another, about six feet apart. The droplets then can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

People who are asymptomatic, but still test positive for COVID-19, can also spread the virus.

For all of these reasons, masks are absolutely essential to prevent the spread of the virus.

How can I stay healthy and avoid COVID-19?

Colorado’s governor has asked all Coloradans to halt all social gatherings with people outside of your household in November. Reduce the number of people you are seeing immediately and take the following steps:

    • Wear a mask.
    • Avoid crowded indoor areas, especially those that are poorly ventilated.
    • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Wash for at least 20 seconds before you eat, after your sneeze and after using the bathroom.
    • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers in addition to hand-washing.
    • Regularly clean surfaces like counters and your mobile phone.
    • Avoid contact with anyone with cold or flu symptoms.
    • Stay home if you are sick.
    • If you’re sick or you are immune-compromised, avoid places with large numbers of people.

Why do some people with COVID-19 get sicker than others?

As with all viruses, some people are more vulnerable than others. COVID-19 has been deadlier for older people and those with underlying health problems including heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity.

Most people who get the illness have mild to moderate symptoms and can recover at home. These patients should isolate themselves and can recover from COVID-19 as they would from influenza, by getting plenty of fluids, resting and treating any fevers or body aches with over the counter medications. Click here to learn more about care at home. Click here to learn more about medications for COVID-19.

If you need help, call your primary care doctor and schedule a Virtual Visit. If you need urgent care after hours, you can do a visit 24/7 with Virtual Urgent Care. If your symptoms suddenly worsen and you have trouble breathing, bluish lips or blue coloring in your face, pressure in your chest, new confusion or an inability to wake up, call 911 immediately.

Treatment varies depending on the severity of the illness. Some people with COVID-19 become severely ill and develop pneumonia and other breathing difficulties. These patients may require hospitalization and high doses of oxygen. Some will need a ventilator to help them keep breathing. And some people who need to go on a ventilator will not survive.

Is ibuprofen safe to take if you suspect you have COVID-19?

Yes. If you have a fever or body aches, it’s safe to take either ibuprofen or acetaminophen. It’s also safe to take alternating doses of ibuprofen or acetaminophen. There was some concern in France about taking ibuprofen, but public health officials in the U.S. and at the World Health Organization have since declared that ibuprofen is safe.

How long does it take to recover from COVID-19?

The median time from onset to recovery for mild cases is approximately two weeks. For people who are severely ill, recovery can take 3 to 6 weeks. In addition, many patients who have contracted COVID-19 report symptoms that last for weeks and months. They have dubbed themselves “long-haulers.” The long-term effects of COVID-19 can be very challenging, so staying healthy is much better than exposing yourself to the illness.

Does the virus live on surfaces and for how long?

person wipes bathroom faucet when disinfecting coronavirus.
We are typically better at cleaning than disinfecting, but the coronavirus needs a little elbow grease to kill. Photo: Getty Images.

With any of the effective products you use for disinfecting coronavirus, it’s important to read the fine print on the container. In particular, how long does it take to kill viruses?

One study showed the coronavirus could live in lab conditions for several hours on surfaces like cardboard, plastic, steel and glass. But, many factors — from light to temperature and humidity — affect how long the virus can live on surfaces outside the lab. To stay safe from COVID-19, clean surfaces regularly and wash your hands as often as possible.

How long are you contagious if you have COVID-19?

Some people have tested positive for COVID-19 several days after their symptoms have gone away. So, it’s best to be very cautious and to continue to isolate yourself for at least a week after all of your symptoms have passed. Respect stay-at-home orders, enlist other people to get necessary food and medications for you, and call your doctor if you have questions.

ethnic person washing hands, one way to help stop spread of COVID-19 symptoms.
Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to keep yourself healthy. Source: Getty Images.

Does soap work better than hand sanitizer?

Yes. Using hand sanitizer and washing your hands with soap and water both can neutralize the coronavirus that is causing COVID-19. But, soap and water also are able to remove the virus from your hands. Hand sanitizer can’t do that. Learn more.

How can I find information on COVID-19 that I can trust? How do I tell fact from opinion?

Medical experts advise people to be wary of random information they find online.

The best way to be sure you are getting facts rather than opinions is to seek information from sources you can trust including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

In addition, you can count on UCHealth to provide you with regular updates and answers to your questions from trusted UCHealth medical experts at uchealth.org/covid19.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.