Las Animas County moves from yellow to blue
by Mark Craddock and E.E. Mullens
OUR WORLD — One year ago today, Gov. Jared Polis issued his first “stay at home” executive order which, among other things, launched a long dry spell for the state’s liquor establishments. Tonight, many of those bars may reopen. Their patrons might want to raise their glasses and drink a toast to Colorado’s newest COVID Dial upgrade – version 3.0.
Starting today, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has launched its latest incarnation of the dial.
And on Wednesday the CDPHE officialy moved Huerfano County to Level Green — the least-restrictive level in the new dial.
Las Animas County moved from Level Yellow to Level Blue which, in addition to its acceptance in the state’s Five-Star Program, means significantly looser restrictions there as well.
While the announcement hardly means the state is out of the pandemic woods, the modified dial provides something of a trail map back to post-pandemic civilization.
“Dial 3.0” makes it easier for counties to move into Level Green: Protect Our Neighbors, the least restrictive level on the dial. It also removes many of the restrictions that currently apply at that level. Additionally, several restrictions in Level Blue are loosened in Dial 3.0.
Notably, “Dial 3.0” allow bars to reopen — at 50% capacity for level green and 25% capacity for level blue.
Local Changes Came Quickly
Dial levels are determined based on three factors: a county’s one-week cumulative incidence of COVID-19 infection per 100,000 people; the one-week average positivity; and the number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Following an alarming late-2020 surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths which saw both local counties move to “Level Red: Severe Risk,” by Feb. 6, 2021, Huerfano County moved to “Level Blue: Caution,” and Las Animas County moved to “Level Yellow: Concern.”
Both counties remained at those levels until Wednesday’s announcement.
Based on the Dial 3.0 metrics, Las Animas County’s cumulative incidence of 62.10 per 100,000, its average positivity rate of 2.5% and low hospitalizations apparently justified the move from yellow to blue. In addition, the CDPHE says the county has successfully received five-star status to operate at level yellow, allowing it to loosen some restrictions on businesses meeting strict safety guidelines.
As of Tuesday, Huerfano County recorded a one-week cumulative incidence of 102.1, which technically could qualify it for the more-restrictive level yellow. But the county’s average positivity is a very low 1.4% and the county reports no hospitalizations in the past two weeks, both of which apparently qualified it for level green.
As of Tuesday night, 45 of Colorado’s 64 counties were at Level Blue on the new dial, including Huerfano County. Sixteen counties, including Las Animas County, were at Level Yellow and two counties — Crowley and Otero — were at level green.
But Wednesday morning, CDPHE published a revised map showing 28 counties recalibrated to Level Green and 22 counties at Level Blue. Thirteen counties are at Level Yellow and one county, Pitkin, moved from Level Yellow to a more-restrictive Level Orange.
“Coloradans have made great sacrifices to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID-19 over the past year,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director, CDPHE. “While this is still a time for caution, these changes to the dial better reflect where we are in the pandemic today, and the balance we are trying to strike between disease suppression and economic hardship.”
Huerfano Commissioners Sought
On Tuesday, in anticipation of a possible change in the dial, Huerfano County Commissioner John Galusha made an informal request that county administrator Carl Young contact the county’s representatives on the bi-county board of health and ask them to represent the county’s position that the board of commissioners support a Green designation for Huerfano County.
Young addressed an email Wednesday to Huerfano County Board of Health members Vonnie Valdez and Lourae King, and to Las Animas and Huerfano Counties Public Health Department (LAHCPHD) Director Kim Gonzalez that said, “At the BOCC meeting yesterday the board asked that the health board discuss and consider requesting that Huerfano County move to green on the COVID dial as soon as we are eligible. The board believes we are trending in the right direction and vaccinations are going well.”
Galusha’s requested direction to administration was done informally, without a motion, to prevent a repetition of an issue that cropped up last week in Custer County.
Tom Flower, one of three Custer County Commissioners and a member of the Custer County’s Board of Health, said a misunderstanding was at the heart of the BOH’s vote last week to lift all COVID-19 restrictions in the small county west of Huerfano.
The vote Wednesday, March 17 lifted capacity restrictions at local businesses immediately and removed the mask mandate across Custer County, even though state officials do not allow counties to unilaterally lessen public health restrictions established through Colorado’s COVID-19 dial. The commissioners were under the impression that an executive order issued by Gov. Jared Polis last month had given them that power, Flower said in an interview with the Denver Post. “We were led to believe that counties could move off the dial, and obviously (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) doesn’t believe that, and that’s the problem,” said Flowers, who voted against the measure. “We weren’t trying to challenge the authority of the state.”
Custer County was in Level Blue on the state’s dial framework. On Wdnesday morning, Custer County was moved to Level Green according to the CDPHE.
Highlights of Dial 3.0
Among the main changes in the new dial, which is expected to be in place from March 24 to mid-April, are:
n The metrics for Level Green have changed, making it easier for counties to achieve Protect Our Neighbors status. Now, counties qualify for Protect Our Neighbors if they have up to 35 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — up from 15 cases.
n There is no longer a certification process for Level Green. Counties will be moved into Level Green once they maintain the appropriate metrics for at least one week.
n Most restrictions in Level Green are now removed. Bars and indoor events must still adhere to a 50% capacity limit or a 500-person cap, whichever is fewer.
n The metrics range for Level Blue is now 36-100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Bars can now open under Level Blue. The limit is 25% capacity or 75 people, whichever is fewer.
n Outdoor events in levels Green and Blue no longer have state-level capacity restrictions under the dial. Counties may choose to implement capacity restrictions on outdoor events at the local level.
n Retail, offices, and non-critical manufacturing in Level Blue may now open to 75% capacity, up from 50%.
n There is no longer a state limit on personal gathering sizes. The state will follow CDC’s guidance on personal gatherings. The CDC still strongly recommends avoiding larger gatherings and crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
n Five-star restaurants and gyms in Levels Blue and Yellow may operate at 100% capacity with six feet of distance between parties as a way to provide businesses with increased flexibility, while still limiting indoor mass gatherings. The state expects that maintaining a 6 foot distancing requirement will be a limiting factor for most indoor spaces.
n Five-star certified seated and unseated indoor events may operate at 50% capacity with a 500-person limit in Level Blue. Five-star seated indoor events in Level Yellow may operate at 50% capacity with a 225-person limit and unseated indoor events in Level Yellow may operate at 50% capacity with a 175-person limit.
Mask Mandate Still in Effect
The dial framework, originally implemented on Sept. 15, 2020, standardizes the levels of openness or restrictions on a county level, based on the metrics of disease transmission, the level of local testing, and hospitalizations, the CDPHE said in a Tuesday press release. This allows Colorado to tailor its COVID-19 response on a county level, recognizing that conditions will vary locally.
The updated dial does not change Colorado’s current statewide mask mandate. Separate from the dial changes, Gov. Polis’ current executive order mandating masks to be worn in public indoor spaces expires April 3. At that time, the Governor may choose to make modifications.
The CDPHE emphasized that COVID-19 still presents risks to healthy Coloradans, so everyone should continue to take precautions until the vaccine becomes widely available and used.
Local Case Counts
Continue to Climb
The Las Animas Huerfano Counties District Health Department reported that Las Animas County recorded 12 new COVID-19 cases, and Huerfano logged seven new cases, since March 18.
As of Tuesday, Huerfano County has a total case count of 340 with 12 active cases and 17 deaths. Las Animas County has a total case count of 1,039 with 24 active cases and 11 deaths.
As of Tuesday, Colfax County, New Mexico, had recorded 719 cases and 46 deaths, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.