San Miguel County Public Health Department announced two new positive COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the overall total to 100. (Courtesy image)

It’s almost Halloween so here’s some scary news — COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise across the country, including Colorado. As of press time Wednesday, there were approximately 8.85 million cases, including 227,000 deaths, in the United States. This is all on the verge of the winter flu season, so things can get scarier, officials warn.

Here’s some more comforting news — locally, San Miguel County has managed the coronavirus pandemic well so far, even though total cases reached 100 this week and there has been a mini-spike, comparatively, within the last months of 10 new positive cases.

The county public health department confirmed and announced two new positive cases from test results received Saturday through Tuesday One 29-year-old male resident and one 55-year-old male resident are symptomatic and in isolation. The most recent positive tests account for the county’s only active cases as of press time.   

County public health director Grace Franklin explained that Colorado is “in the middle of the pack” nationally in terms of cases (just over 99,000 as of Wednesday), but is surrounded by states that can’t say the same, particularly Arizona, which has the ninth-highest number of cases nationally at the moment with approximately 240,000.

Within the state, it is estimated that one in every 292 people are currently infectious, she added. The reproductive rate, which calculates how many people a person with the virus can infect, is 1.21 statewide. Franklin explained public health officials aim to have that number around 1. Throughout the Western Slope the rate is just below that threshold, “which is a great sign,” she said.

“We’re doing really well as San Miguel County,” Franklin said, again emphasizing the Five Commitments of Containment — wear a mask, maintain six feet of physical distance, minimize group size, frequent hand-washing and stay home when feeling sick, including getting tested.

The CDC recently released new contact-tracing guidelines that explained being exposed to someone who is shedding the virus within six feet for 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour timeframe can cause infection. Previously, it was suggested not to be within six feet of someone for more than 15 minutes continuously.

“This could make a huge difference because if somebody is within contact for two minutes multiple times over a day the idea is that the viral load could infect that person,” Franklin explained.

The state also released new gathering guidelines that limit groups to no more than 10 people from two households total. The county already limited informal social gatherings to 10 people, but the household stipulation is new.

“We’ve seen some of the major causes for new infections throughout the state have been through social gatherings,” Franklin said.

Upcoming holiday travel, the flu season and more people spending time indoors is a “recipe for pretty dark times if we don’t keep it under control,” she added.

“With hospitalizations and caseloads increased, we need to really control transmission now in order to mitigate severity in the coming months,” Franklin said. “Locally, how do we keep that pendulum still instead of it swinging back and forth as we come into the winter. … We need to keep this momentum going. … We’re really at this critical moment. Thinking about how are we being successful what we can we continue to do as a community to maintain this low transmission rate that we’ve been holding onto for the last couple months.”

She discouraged people from gathering in large crowds during Halloween Saturday and practice the five commitments if so, including limiting the number of people from different households. 

On Sunday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment launched a statewide virus exposure notification system for Apple and Android phones. There was a notification with instructions on how to sign up.

Franklin said it’s “another layer of protection and really great tool in our fight against COVID.”

“We must regain lost ground against this deadly virus, and we need every tool at our disposal to protect ourselves, our families, our communities, and our small businesses,” Governor Jared Polis said in a release on Sunday. “It’s important for Coloradans to enable CO Exposure Notifications on your iPhone or Android to help save lives, to contain this deadly disease, protect your loved ones, and to use every technological advantage we have against the virus.”

Personal information, including name, phone number, location and IP address, isn't collected at all.

When exposure notifications are enabled, smartphones exchange anonymous “tokens” with other phones in close proximity. The tokens are stored for 14 days, which is enough time to determine if someone tested positive for the virus or had been exposed to it. Tokens are changed every 15 minutes to add an extra layer of security and anonymity. 

A person who tests positive can only upload their result from a qualified testing site and lab after it is verified by a public health authority. Checks are in place through exposure notifications to weed out disruption or false reports, according to a release.

The higher the participation, the more effective the system is. Research indicates that even if 15 percent of Colorado residents enable notifications, the system can decrease the frequency of virus-related deaths by 11.8 percent and infections by 15 percent.

To sign up, on Apple phones, go to settings and type “exposure notifications” into the search bar. On Android devices, enable the system by installing CO Exposure Notifications from the Google Play Store. There will be another notification to enable exposure notifications this Sunday.