State triggers new protocols for schools, care centers and employers

Colorado triggered new protocols for schools, care centers and employers as 16 more cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) were reported in Colorado on Wednesday — bringing the statewide total number of presumptive positive cases to 33.

None of the new cases are in the Pueblo area; as of late Wednesday, the closest patient still is in the Colorado Springs area, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The state's own lab has ruled the cases as positive, though they await confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The news comes after Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency Tuesday, when 17 positive cases were reported statewide. The first two cases were reported a week ago.

Most of the new cases announced Wednesday were in the Aspen area. Six people in a social circle — all Australians in their 60s and 70s — had contact with a woman who was visiting Aspen and returned home to Australia, where she tested positive for COVID-19 last week, according to the state health department.

"The virus will be disproportionately be hitting our resort and mountain communities first," Polis told reporters at a news conference. "We know these community health resources in these mountain communities have limited surge capacity. They're also generally in higher altitudes."

Colorado is now “seeing limited community spread.” The state lab has completed test results on approximately 300 people in Colorado since Feb. 28, Polis said. The CDC is sending 1,500 test kits to the state.

"This will get worse before it gets better," he said. "The public health experts that work for the state of Colorado are advising that we are likely on the verge of a tipping point, where we would see more community spread in the days and weeks ahead."

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Wednesday established emergency rules urging senior facilities to limit visitations and conduct screening of visitors and staff. The same rules would apply to Colorado's veteran centers, regional hospitals and mental hospital.

“Based on what has occurred in Seattle, it is not surprising,” said Sarah Joseph, the public information officer for the Pueblo health department, referring to the Life Care Center nursing home in Washington state, which has seen at least 13 coronavirus-related deaths, and where a third of the center’s 180 employees are out sick with symptoms, according to The Associated Press.

Certain people are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19, including those age 65 or older and individuals who have chronic medical conditions, Polis said. The governor recommends that people in those groups "reconsider attending large-scale community gatherings," even church services.

"We're also urging leaders of faith communities to use their soap box," Polis said, adding that congregations should emphasize helping people in isolation with few resources.

At least 15 of the 33 positive cases in Colorado involve patients over 60, according to data from the state health department. The youngest cases have been identified as a "school age" girl in Douglas County and a teenage girl in Denver. Most cases are in the Aspen or Denver area.

If any K-12 school in Colorado reports a coronavirus patient, the campus would close 72 hours for disinfection and have an epidemiologist conduct an investigation. Districts with multiple cases would close for 14 days, Polis said.

Pueblo School District 60 announced Wednesday that it was canceling all district-sponsored out-of-state- and international travel for staff and students through the end of the month. Parents can read more at tinyurl.com/thmn2t4 — the district's website.

On Tuesday, Colorado State University-Pueblo started sharing regular updates campuswide at www.csupueblo.edu/coronavirus. For the last two weeks, under the direction of President Timothy Mottet, the school’s six-member executive council has been meeting daily. All nonessential university-sponsored international travel by faculty, staff, and students is suspended, while nonessential out-of-state travel is discouraged.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment published emergency rules that temporarily requires employers in certain industries to provide a small amount of paid sick leave to employees with flu-like symptoms while awaiting COVID-19 testing.

The Colorado Health Emergency Leave with Pay Rules took effect Wednesday for 30 days — or longer if the state of emergency declared by the governor continues. It requires up to four days of paid sick for employees being tested for coronavirus COVID-19 in industries that include: leisure and hospitality; food services; child care; education, including transportation, food service, and related work at educational establishments; home health, if working with elderly, disabled, ill, or otherwise high-risk individuals; and nursing homes and community living facilities.

The requirement does not supersede sick leave that employers already provide and does not cover wage replacement if an employee tests positive and requires quarantine.

The Colorado Department of Corrections has suspended public and volunteer visits in its facilities, including family reunification events. Legal visits would still be allowed but must be noncontact visits. As a result, the department is considering video visits and expanding inmates' phone time allowed.

The Pueblo health department said it is galvanizing relationships with community organizations to create the Unified Message COVID-19 group, whose goal is to share timely, accurate information to the public.

“Most developments related to the COVID-19 outbreak will be disseminated by PDPHE via local media and social media, with local agencies playing a supporting role,” the department announced Wednesday.

Participants include: American Medical Response; city of Pueblo; Pueblo Fire Department; CSU-Pueblo; Parkview Medical Center; Pueblo Community College; Pueblo Community Health Center; Pueblo County; Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office; Pueblo Police Department; Pueblo Water; Pueblo West Metropolitan District; Pueblo School Districts 60 and Pueblo County School District 70; St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center; and 2-1-1 at the Senior Resource Development Agency.

“I am working collaboratively with the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment to monitor the situation,” Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar said Wednesday.

The governor said the most-effective tools are hand-washing and social distancing, such avoiding handshakes and keeping sick family members at home. At least 80% of coronavirus patients recover after self-treatment and have mild treatments with over-the-counter medications, he said.

"Our public health system alone won't stop the virus. Every Coloradan has the responsibility," Polis said.

Anyone who has general questions about coronavirus can call 877-462-2911, visit https://www.cdc.gov, or email COHELP@RMPDC.org.

Chieftain reporter Anthony A. Mestas contributed to this story.

rlopez@chieftain.com

Twitter: @lopezricardojr