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Coronavirus models show Coloradans must continue high levels of social distancing through fall

Sady Swanson
Fort Collins Coloradoan
Published 6:23 PM EDT May 26, 2020

Colorado public health modeling of the coronavirus spread shows high levels of social distancing will be needed through the fall to avoid exceeding hospital capacity. 

Under the current safer-at-home orders, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has said the goal is for the state to maintain an average of 65% social distancing. That means, on average, a person is cutting their in-person interactions down by 65% of what they might normally do. 

Coloradans achieved on average about 80% social distancing during the stay-at-home period in April. 

As of early May, every person who contracted the coronavirus spread it to less than one other person on average, Colorado School of Public Health Dean Jon Samet said. Colorado hospitalizations for the coronavirus have also dipped below 400 for the first time since March, Polis said. 

“We’re in a good place. Now we need to look forward to see how we stay in a good place,” Samet said. 

But models depicting changes in social distancing levels show hospital capacity quickly getting overwhelmed if the state average dips below 65%, Samet said, as soon as this summer. The models also rely on Coloradans to continue wearing masks when in public and the state being able to continue ramping up testing and contact tracing. 

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If Coloradans go down to 55% social distancing — cutting about half of their regular in-person interactions — ICU need peaks in September at more than 3,000 beds needed. Cases would exceed current hospital capacity in late July or early August, according to the models. 

Decreasing even further to 45% social distancing is predicted to cause cases to peak in late summer, with more than 5,000 hospitalizations, and overwhelm ICU capacity by midsummer, according to the models provided by the state. 

Every model shows cases spiking in August when schools are set to resume in-person learning, Samet said. 

Models show high levels of social distancing for people in vulnerable populations — age 65 and older or with preexisting health conditions — could allow for people who are not considered at-risk to socially distance a little less at 55% without overwhelming the state’s hospitals. However, going below 55% at any point before November shows a spike in cases that would require more ICU beds than the state has, according to the models. 

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But that model only works if all adults in vulnerable populations comply with high social distancing, Samet said. Another model shows that if only half of at-risk adults participate in 80% social distancing — like what the whole state achieved during the stay-at-home orders in April — all other Coloradans still can’t dip their distancing below 65% or the hospital system could get overwhelmed by mid- to late summer. 

“The models for now say that we are in this for the longer run, and we’ll need to have maintained social distancing,” Samet said. 

Polis reiterated Monday that he doesn’t have “a crystal ball” and doesn’t know what the months ahead could look like, which is why he won’t speculate on what restrictions might be lifted in July or August — or even in the next few weeks. 

The health department relies on hospitalization data to determine if public health restrictions in place are doing enough to slow the spread of the virus so everyone who needs a hospital bed, for coronavirus or for an unrelated health condition, can have one. But coronavirus data lags because it takes about 13 days on average for someone who is infected with the virus to need hospitalization.

Samet said the data around deaths for older Coloradans is “quite compelling.” According to state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy, nine out of 10 coronavirus deaths in Colorado are in someone age 60 years or older. 

“We need older people to maintain greater levels of social distancing,” Samet said. 

Sady Swanson covers crime, courts, public safety and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support our work and local journalism with a digital subscription at

This content was originally published here.