COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- With El Paso County's two-week COVID-19 incidence rate over 217 per 100,000 people, local leaders are scrambling to curb the virus' growth rate before further restrictions are enacted.
An hourlong news conference started at 1 p.m. Friday at the El Paso County Office of Emergency Management to provide more information. Watch below:
County officials said they have until Friday to convince the state that the county can tweak its COVID mitigation plan to handle changing situations such as the current spike in cases -- or risk a return to stricter health orders the state enacted earlier in the pandemic.
"What we will do in that mitigation plan is re-emphasize where those points of contact are, how we're making sure that there are no gaps," said Dr. Robin Johnson, medical director for El Paso County Health. "And we'll keep getting the message out."
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said the catalysts in the current spike are informal groups who aren't following recommended guidelines, and workplace environments where employees "have become lax" with those guidelines.
"Let this serve as a wake-up call," he said. "These next several weeks are critical to get our numbers back to manageable levels before the holiday season, and winter, are at our doorstep."
A bright spot in the situation -- according to Peter Hilts, of the Area Superintendents Association -- is the status of schools in the county.
"In 100,000 students over five counties, we've had virtually no transmission of the virus," he said. "That's because we're scrupulous. Schools are the safest place to be. But if teachers get sick, that affects our ability to provide in-person or hybrid learning. That's why we need your help."
Dr. Bill Plauth, chief medical officer for Penrose-St. Francis Hospital, said advances in have improved the ability of patients to recover from the virus.
"Our hospitalization rates are maybe 50% to 60% of what they were during earlier peaks of the pandemic," he said. "But we don't want it to get any worse. Patients still die of COVID-19."
Officials were asked how they're advising church leaders in light of a recent federal ruling that found mask-wearing and building capacity requirements were violating the Constitutional right of freedom of religion for two Denver area churches.
Dr. Johnson seemed to imply that the situation doesn't apply to local churches in a county that has a spike in COVID cases and is close to the kind of stricter health orders that could limit attendance or close churches entirely.
"Please, wear your mask," she said. "Follow the six feet of social distancing. Wash your hands. And think about the number and frequency of those interactions that you do have."
County Commissioner Mark Waller said the county's interpretation of the ruling is that it applies only to the two Denver-area churches involved and not to all Colorado churches.
"But part of that ruling is that the state was treating these churches differently from so-called critical businesses," he said. "Obviously, we're not going to treat our churches any differently."
On Thursday, El Paso County Commissioners and County Public Health officials had a meeting with Governor Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to discuss how to reduce the rising number of coronavirus cases.
Mark Waller said their conversation with the governor's office was frustrating, adding that the state only gave them a few days to come up with a mitigation plan.
If the plan is not approved by the state, then El Paso County will go from "Safer at Home" level one to level three. This means a lot of businesses -- such as gyms, retail shops, and indoor events -- will be reduced significantly, including reduced capacities to 25%.