Now that an increasing number of vaccines are getting into the arms of the most vulnerable, and hospitalization and death rates are declining at the same time, the state’s newly revised COVID-19 alert dial is expected to allow more of Colorado’s economy to open up.
That revised “Dial 2.0,” set to go into effect sometime next week, will soften some of the restrictions that residents and business owners have been struggling with for nearly a year now.
That updated dial, however, won’t yet factor in how many people are receiving the vaccine, something some health experts questioned.
“These are changes that we feel comfortable moving forward with immediately based on learning and data from the last several weeks and months the state of where the pandemic is in Colorado,” Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday. “So while vaccinations are not explicitly built into this update because they’re not yet significant enough to have an impact on the pandemic, they will be explicitly built into the final update before the end of the pandemic.”
The head of the Mesa County Public Health Department, Jeff Kuhr, said he doesn’t understand that. He said the state should incorporate the number of people who have received the vaccine into the dial now because it, along with other indicators of how a county is faring, will show how a county is dealing with the pandemic, and where their public health directives should be as a result.
Currently, that dial is based on a county’s level of active cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but other things as well, such as hospital capacities and staffing needs.
“They’re reshuffling all of these same metrics, but the metric that’s missing is the percent of the population that’s vaccinated,” Kuhr told the Mesa County commissioners on Monday. “I think that’s the key to telling our folks that we’re going to be more open.”
In Mesa County, 11,347 vaccines have been administered with 8,759 people still on their first dose and 2,588 members of the community completely inoculated, according to Tuesday’s update. The county administered 2,388 vaccines last week, slightly more than the week before when 2,357 vaccines were given out.
The amount of vaccines distributed in Mesa County has hovered at just over 2,000 doses each week for the past month. In total, the state has allocated 17,150 doses to the county, which includes vaccine allocated to hospitals, medical offices, and local public health for first and second doses.
Polis said the state likely will add vaccination rates to the dial sometime next month, when more vaccines are given and that impact is better understood.
Regardless of that omission, Kuhr said he believes that under the revised dial, businesses not only will be able to decide for themselves whether to mandate masks for workers and patrons, but that most businesses will be able to open to as much as 70% capacity.
Though he’s still working on his draft report to the state that will help determine where on the new dial Mesa County will sit, he’s hopeful that it will mean nearly, though not fully, opening up the county to something more akin to normal.
Kuhr stressed, however, that it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, and that precautions shouldn’t still be taken by his office, businesses and residents.
“From the beginning, we’ve always said the biggest threat is in hospital pressure. If we have enough people vaccinated, that hospital pressure will go down significantly,” he said. “So we can have the virus in our community as long as we’re not having hospitalizations and deaths as a result of it, and get back to a more normal state.”
Kuhr said to fully get there the county should have as many as 80% of people 65 and older vaccinated, something that still will take time because of the availability of vaccines. If that happens, which Kuhr said is entirely possible, the county could see itself mostly out of the long COVID-19 tunnel sooner rather than later.
“Does that mean all of a sudden we’re wide open?” he said. “No, it doesn’t, but we have some recommendations that we’ll still work on.” Under Kuhr’s draft plan, county workers and contractors still would be required to wear protective gear, such as face masks, but the general public, i.e., businesses, churches and civic groups, can have more discretion on how they want to deal with that.
“Face masks would be strongly recommended, but not required, and each business could make their own decision on that,” he said. “Social distancing, we wouldn’t look at this any longer from the perspective of a percent of capacity. We would just say, ‘However many people we can get into that business while still maintaining social distancing.’ We could be at a 70% capacity, but let’s not talk about capacity anymore. Let’s talk about the practical application of distancing people as we continue to move forward.”
Other simple precautions, such as cleaning and disinfecting and symptom tracking of infected individuals, would continue for now.
Soon enough, he said “most all of this will be recommendations, not requirements.”
Like most of the state, all of the counties in the six-county region currently are at the “orange” level, meaning that last call for alcohol has to be at 10 p.m., and restaurants, offices and non-critical manufacturing are at 25% capacity.
Some of those restrictions, however, could go to a higher capacity level if they are in a county’s Five Star variance program, and are following all public health restrictions. What that capacity percentage would be under the revised dial, however, isn’t yet known.
Still, the change in the state’s COVID dial could put the county under the “yellow” level, meaning that those parts of the county covered under the Five Star program would essentially be in “blue,” and businesses could go to a much higher capacity level right away.