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How Colorado avoided a post-holiday COVID-19 surge

Public health experts said the answer is difficult to track down with changing variables and a lack of contact tracing.

COLORADO, USA — As COVID-19 cases across the country surged before the holidays, public health departments' messages of concern eventually became sighs of relief in Colorado.

“[A] pleasant surprise after Thanksgiving turned into even more of a pleasant surprise after Christmas and New Year’s,” Tri-County Health Department Executive Director Dr. John Douglas said.

Douglas said pinpointing why Colorado avoided a post-holiday spike is not necessarily easy when so much is changing.

Different variables make it hard to track effects.

“I think we feel relatively confident that personal behavior matters a lot, and relatively confident that restrictions, which are a double-edged sword, mattered a lot but we can’t exactly quantitate how much,” Douglas said.

It does not help that contact tracing has not been able to keep up with the number of cases over the last few months, something Douglas hopes President Joe Biden's administration will help states fund.

Even when contact tracing is up to par, though, Douglas believes it is not a perfect way to track the virus.

“About 30% of people will say, ‘I was in a private gathering, and I went to a church service, and I went to a restaurant.’ We really don’t have any ability to pin it down any more tightly than that,” Douglas said.

Researchers across the country are hoping their models and studies may help states navigate trends.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is used to watching disease movement throughout communities, but more recently, one of their focuses has been on COVID-19.

“Historically, when it comes to health, [Coloradans] do much better [when compared to other states],” Dr. Ali Mokdad, Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health for the University of Washington, said.

For Colorado and most states across the country, cell phone data showed people either purposefully or unintentionally self-quarantined after traveling.

“After each holiday,” Mokdad said, “We have noticed in our data…that Americans stayed at home. It was like dead silence after the holidays.”

Mokdad believes that is one of the reasons Colorado’s COVID-19 numbers did not surge in the way experts believed they might.

IHME’s most recent modeling predicts Colorado’s case and death rates will continue to decline.

Both Mokdad and Douglas believe that will only happen if vaccine distribution ramps up, the mutated COVID-19 strain out of the U.K. does not get out of control, people remain cautious, and restrictions are not lifted too quickly.

“This virus is very opportunistic,” Mokdad said. “If we make a mistake and we relax, this virus is still around and many people are susceptible.”

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