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The word is “if.”

IF the numbers remain steady or falling.

IF Coloradoans can continue to social distance six feet apart and continue to wear facemasks.

Image courtesy Chaffee County Public Health

IF businesses, bars and restaurants, and recreational facilities can follow the public health guidelines established to allow them to reopen.

IF visitors to Colorado’s famed natural beauty, plethora of recreational options, and quaint mountain towns can behave themselves and follow the same social distancing and mask rules that locals are following.

If strong, evidence-based contact tracing and testing programs can be reinforced.

THEN, the state can move to the next phase of reopening that Governor Jared Polis is calling “Protect Our Neighbors.”  The hope is that the state can move to this phase by the end of June or early July.

“If the key message in March and April was we need to flatten the curve, now we have a new message: We need to exercise personal responsibility — wear masks in public, stay six feet apart from others, and support our local public health efforts to contain this epidemic so that we can continue to enjoy our freedoms,” said Polis.

To be able to move to this phase the state has to statistically demonstrate:

  • Sustained, lower disease transmission levels
  • Show that it can treat patients and handle the surge in need for intensive hospital care
  • Conduct testing and effective case investigation, contact tracing, and outbreak response

The timing can’t come too soon for desperate businesses, especially for Colorado’s mountain communities where tourism is our lifeblood. But to reach this phase, and stay at this stage, every single resident and visitor needs to do their part.

The sign at the highway entrances to Chaffee County says it best. “Entering Chaffee County – mask up.”

That sign could just as well be posted at the entrances to the state of Colorado, as 23 states, including many of our neighbors, are seeing an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases. A map of the U.S. shows that surrounding states such as Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Florida – all are experiencing a dramatic rise in cases. For many of the residents of these states – Colorado is an attractive summer adventure.

Image courtesy of New England Public Health Training Center

This is a precarious moment.

“We are seeing a disturbing increase in infections,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci testifying before the United States Congress on Tuesday morning, June 23 about the situation across the whole of the country. “You have to have the manpower, the system, the testing to identify the case increases, to know where the cases are coming from, and address the surges. Right now, this is a mixed bag of states that are stable, and states where this virus is on the rise.”

In March as the cases of coronavirus known as COVID-19 blew up around the country, the quick actions taken here in Colorado – including shutting down our ski resorts at the height of spring break season, all schools, all non-critical businesses — saved our state from what could have been a true public health disaster, instead of the public health emergency it remained. Colorado did a lot right.

The “Protect Our Neighbor” phase requires that we do a lot right again as businesses move to basically 50 percent of capacity. Over time, that 50 percent threshold could even be increased if COVID-19’s spread doesn’t worsen in a region, said Polis.

Public health experts say that we need real-world evidence, to inform the decisions that will be made as the state and the country continues to reopen. This phase will depend upon containing any outbreaks that occur, by employing testing, case investigation, contact tracing, isolation, quarantine, site-specific closures, and the enforcement of public health orders.

“To understand community spread, we’re going to be doing more testing, not less,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, when questioned during the congressional hearings on Tuesday. He was asked about the fall surge, that he and Fauci both say is in our future. “The key thing is surveillance. We’re doing 500,00 to 600,000 tests a day now. If we can increase this to three million per day this would improve our response.”