'It's A One-Size-Fits-All Set': Larimer County Commissioner Reflects On COVID-19 Restrictions
More than 30 Colorado counties are now at Level Red classification — deemed by the state public health department to be at severe risk when it comes to the spread of COVID-19.
That means no indoor dining at restaurants. Private gatherings: prohibited. Offices, gyms, churches: all capped at a tiny fraction of capacity.
Some public officials are pushing back against those restrictions, arguing that COVID-19 is not the only health concern facing our communities. Among them is Steve Johnson, a Larimer County commissioner. He joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to reflect on the experience.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: You have been vocal in opposing the state's red level designation in Larimer County. Some might read that as you being not on the side of public health. Is that the case?
Steve Johnson: No, that’s not the case at all. Actually, I am a retired veterinarian. I have a four-year graduate degree of medical education. We are very concerned in Larimer County about increases in hospitalizations, about over-taxing our healthcare workers, and the number of cases we’re seeing in our community.
The reason I have concerns about the state's Level Red designation is it doesn't match what we’re seeing with transmission in Larimer County. It’s a one-size-fits-all set of restrictions that are written in offices in Denver, and they don't really apply to a lot of the counties we’re seeing in Colorado. We do very extensive contact tracing here in Larimer County. All of the cases that we have identified as positive we try to determine where people have contracted the virus. We recommended quarantining for people who are positive. Then we follow up with restrictions based on what we’re seeing from that contact tracing, and that's exactly what we were doing in the weeks coming up to the level red designation by the state. Basically they forced us to abandon what I think is a more scientific approach of addressing what you’re seeing in the community.
I know you are looking at specific data or metrics to determine that. In Larimer County, numbers were going down — was the spread getting under control?
We actually had been monitoring these metrics; hospitalizations, percent positivity, the number of cases ever since the pandemic started in march. Our numbers were very flat. Our positivity rate was less than the state average all summer long. Until very recently, in October, Larimer County, with all counties in Colorado, started to see an increase in cases and all of our metrics did go up.
It sounds like you’re saying yes, numbers are going up, but it could be due to COVID fatigue, weather turning colder, more people indoors. It’s not specifically restaurants.
Yes. That's precisely right. What we’re seeing from our contact tracing was medium-sized group gatherings in homes, spectators at sporting events. Those were the areas that we were seeing the main forms of transmission in Larimer County. We were not seeing significant transmission in restaurants, or in retail businesses. In fact, we had been working very closely with those businesses for the last six months designing strategies for them to operate safely. Our data, our metrics showed they were doing exactly that. They were operating safely. So we don’t believe that's where the problem was. What we did early in October is address some specific regulations and guidelines around group gatherings, sporting activities, and people assembling in public places.
We actually saw that starting to work. Our numbers had crested and started going down. We only have about a week's worth of data showing that, so we need to follow up and see if that's a trend or an aberration. But what we’re convinced is that our restrictions were affecting numbers in a good way. It takes about two to three weeks before you start to see an effect because of the incubation period of the virus.
So we started to see our numbers go down and that was about the exact same time the state said “no, you’re not going to do the targeted approach anymore.” We asked and they said no, “you’re going to be at Level Red.” We were at Level Yellow, so they actually made us skip level orange and go to Level Red. We tried to make the case we weren't seeing much of a problem there, but they did not listen.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Dec. 2. You can find the full episode here.