COVID-19 outbreaks in Colorado’s schools, colleges, restaurants and churches have increased for three weeks in a row after state restrictions were loosened and students began to return to class.
No one has definitively linked changes in state policy with increased outbreaks, but there is a distinct pattern. Outbreaks in all four settings fell through December and the start of January. They began rising again in the middle of the month, with state data showing increases on Jan. 20 and the two subsequent Wednesdays.
In most other settings tracked by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the number of outbreaks was stable or fluctuated with no clear pattern. The number of outbreaks in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where a disproportionate number of deaths have happened, continued to decrease.
The state defines an outbreak as two or more cases linked to a specific location or event. Most recent outbreaks linked to schools, colleges, restaurants and religious facilities had 10 or fewer cases.
Denver-area schools began gradually bringing back more students throughout January, and some parts of the state were quicker to resume in-person classes. Districts and state officials warned some increase was likely as students returned from remote learning.
At the same time, the state began to ease restrictions on indoor dining and other gatherings, starting with Gov. Jared Polis’ announcement that 33 counties in “Level Red” on the state’s dial framework would move to “Level Orange” on Jan. 4. Indoor dining had to close under Level Red, but restaurants could open at 25% of capacity in the lower level.
Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, said state epidemiologists don’t consider the increase in restaurant outbreaks a trend.
“The governor is concerned whenever there is an increase in the spread of this virus and fortunately, thanks to the persistence and the commitment of Coloradans, outbreaks have decreased slowly since November,” he said.
The state also lifted caps on attendance at worship services, which it classified as essential services, in early December. Religious facilities are still required to keep different households 6 feet apart.
Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, cautioned against reading too much into outbreak data. Less than 1% of COVID-19 cases are linked to outbreaks, because it’s difficult to determine where someone might have been infected, she said.
“It’s a very small piece of the whole picture,” she said.
Wednesday’s state data showed the following outbreaks:
- Kindergarten to 12th grade schools: 98 outbreaks, up from 73 on Jan. 13. The largest is at Liberty Common Charter School in Fort Collins, with 66 cases.
- Universities: 15 outbreaks, up from seven. The largest is the ongoing community outbreak at University of Colorado Boulder, with 2,821 cases.
- Restaurants: 39 outbreaks, up from 28. The vast majority of cases are linked to two In-N-Out locations, where a combined 173 employees were infected.
- Religious facilities: 20 outbreaks, up from 12. The largest is linked to a July event put on by Andrew Wommack Ministries in Teller County, with 154 cases.
An outbreak is considered ongoing until four weeks have passed with no cases linked to it.