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Our View: COVID-19 state restrictions: lifted too soon?

Were state restrictions lifted too soon?

At the end of last week, Gov. Jared Polis lifted statewide COVID-19 restrictions and left decisions about continued restrictions up to local county public health directors.

On its surface, that might make sense to some people.

But does it really? Colorado is experiencing a fourth wave of infections, mostly of new variants. The Colorado School of Public Health computer models indicate that waiting until mid-May would have been optimum in terms of preventing severe illness, increases in hospitalization and fatalities from COVID-19. In fact, projections showed that by mid-May, enough Coloradans will have been vaccinated that COVID-19 fatalities could drop to near zero.

But Polis had already suggested he would relax restrictions by April 1; with a nod to the data, he postponed that decision about two weeks.

CSPH data show that if the restrictions were lifted April 1, about 3,000 additional deaths might result by July 1. By waiting until April 15, 600 to 800 additional people will die, according to the models.

Of course, some counties, including La Plata, will continue to impose restrictions such as mask-wearing and social distancing indoors. But 28 of 64 counties have announced that all restrictions are lifted.

COVID-19 doesn’t recognize county lines, and many people who travel across county lines will be confused about which rules are in place in La Plata versus Montezuma county, for example. Montezuma County has announced it will forego all restrictions. And if transmission increases there, trouble could travel to adjacent counties as well.

Lifting restrictions statewide also sends the wrong message, reinforcing the idea that the pandemic is over, which will no doubt lead some people to stop following infection safety measures altogether.

The pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has had an impact, too, on how many people can be vaccinated quickly. Vaccination is key to protecting more people from infection, which reduces transmission, hospitalizations and fatalities.

Finally, local public health authorities – who have already taken a great deal of unwarranted heat for COVID-19 restrictions – will face more local pressure to abandon science and lift all restrictions, whether advisable or not.

We don’t understand why the governor wouldn’t follow the recommendations of CSPH, which are evidence and model-based, and wait another month before lifting restrictions. Perhaps his Libertarian leanings underlie his decision.

Locally, San Juan Basin Public Health Director Liane Jollon said that she and her staff believe that by May 15 they will be able to lift most restrictions and shift to issuing advisories in La Plata and Archuleta counties. But it’s highly likely that wearing masks indoors will continue to be required for a time, she said, because masks are very effective at preventing transmission, cheap and don’t prevent business activity.

It’s important that for the next four weeks, people continue to follow the reduced restrictions to contain transmission, so we don’t create another huge wave of infections, she said.

“This isn’t going to happen by magic,” Jollon said.

In a worst-case scenario – a huge spike in infections, severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths – restrictions could be imposed again. Jollon said in that situation, her organization would follow CSPH data and advice for containing the outbreak.

It’s unfortunate the governor chose not to follow the CSPH data and wait another month to lift statewide restrictions.

Only time will tell if that was a gamble worth taking. Lives hang in the balance.

Meanwhile, keep wearing your masks. If you know someone who has been unable to get a vaccine, or has postponed a second dose, offer to help them get vaccinated.

We’re still all in this together.