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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Colorado Has Nearly 200 COVID-19 Cases. So What Does That Really Mean?

Rae Ellen Bichell
The CDPHE prepping COVID-19 test samples for analysis on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

Since Colorado's first COVID-19 case was announced less than two weeks ago, the state's economic engines have ground to a halt. State and local governments have ordered myriad closures and restrictions on the size of in-person gatherings. It's all meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Yet the state has tracked just 183 cases and two deaths as of Tuesday afternoon. In some counties, there are zero known cases.

So why are such extreme measures in place?

A better grasp on how those numbers inform the restrictions that have emptied restaurants and left the halls of the state Capitol building silent came in a press conference today. Colorado's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, said "it's really difficult to know" how many coronavirus cases there are in the state.

"I think part of the challenge here is that many cases are mild, so we know there are individuals who have mild symptoms that are home that haven't felt they necessarily even need to be tested," she said.

Of the 183 known COVID-19 cases in Colorado, 20 involve hospitalizations. There have also been two deaths, including one today, a Weld County man in his 70s.

The press conference with Herlihy was virtual. Reporters participated via Zoom, texting their questions to the doctor. The forum allowed for model social distancing, but did not give reporters the opportunity to ask follow-up questions.

The state cannot offer tests to everyone who wants them. Herlihy reiterated what health officials around the state and country are recommending: those with symptoms of COVID-19, such as a persistent dry cough, should self-isolate for seven days. If symptoms grow worse, they should call a doctor or emergency room for next steps. That's when tests, whenever available, are best used, she said.

"If you think about these cases as sort of a pyramid, we typically are much more likely to identify cases at the top of the pyramid. So that includes individuals who have the most severe illness -- so that's going to be deaths that occur, ICU admissions, hospitalizations," Herlihy said.

That means the people most likely to get tested are those who are the most ill and most vulnerable -- people older than 60, people with chronic health conditions, and health care workers.

The shortage of test kits in Colorado has meant even those with doctor's orders to get tested for COVID-19 are experiencing long waits. On March 14, KUNC spoke with several people waiting in line at the Denver Coliseum drive-through testing site who had been trying to get tested for days. None received one that day.

Vigilance for possible cases is another way of responding to minimize the virus' spread.

"We are working on getting data from communities where we have not had widespread testing available," Herlihy said.

Meanwhile, the state is working to bring more tests to the state.

"We are certainly working with federal government and with various commercial partners to acquire more testing reagents and kits and the supplies that we need, including swabs," Herlihy said. "As far as bringing new tests online, we really rely on the federal government, specifically FDA, to identify tests and test kits and commercial products that are appropriate to be used for testing."

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