DENVER -- Colorado Gov. Jared Polis provided an update Tuesday on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic as over a dozen counties enact stricter guidelines aimed at decreasing the spread of the virus.
The most sobering revelation of Tuesday's news conference came from Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state's epidemiologist, who said that deaths from the virus could at least double to 5,600 -- and at worst, rise to 7,400 -- by the end of the year if the current spike in cases doesn't decrease.
The state's current total of around 2,800 deaths came during the first 8 1/2 months of the pandemic.
"Our current trajectory would take us to 6,600 deaths by Dec. 31," she said. "That's given our record COVID transmission rare. If we have a worse spike after Thanksgiving, we'll see even more deaths. That's why we're emphasizing our message to wear masks, practice social distancing, avoid travel and spend Thanksgiving only with the immediate family you live with."
Polis said the latest statistics show that 1 out of every 41 Coloradans is contagious with the virus, and that people who are infected have a nine-day window for transmitting COVID to others.
"That's why it's so important to follow the recommendations," he said. "That goes for whether it's Thanksgiving celebrations or Black Friday shopping. We hope that people will follow their conscience. If you have loved ones who get sick or die because you decided to have a large family gathering, that's on your conscience. You'll have to live with it."
In a glimmer of optimism, Herlihy said that the number of statewide COVID cases has stabilized over the past few days but it's too soon to say whether that's the beginning of a trend that could avoid the projected number of deaths.
The governor also announced the formation of an education task force that begins meeting on Wednesday, with a goal of returning most students to in-classroom learning for the next semester in January.
"We'll work with school districts and parents," he said. "Looking at protocols, examples of what works. We're going to move backwards from January to make sure that we have a sequencing and timeline with what's needed. As you know, we pushed out $15 million just last week to help schools be able to have the additional protocols that they need, to be able to meet."
Polis called schools "safe, regulated environments" because of the dedication to wearing masks, social distancing and being proactive in COVID-related isolations and quarantines.
"We want the next semester to be as uninterrupted as possible," he said. "We don't want education to be a casualty of the pandemic."
Another key topic of discussion was the state's restaurant industry, as some owners decided to close instead of trying to endure a 10% capacity limit and others threaten to ignore the health orders.
Polis insisted that the health orders for restaurants will be enforced.
"Any type of business that violates a health order -- whether it's hepatitis, salmonella or COVID -- could lose their license to operate at that retail outlet, and lose their liquor license," he said. "That would be a devastating outcome for many small businesses.
Among other matters touched on by the governor and Herlihy: transferring patients to and from hospitals as bed space threatens to run out; Colorado's role in a nationwide test of delivering a COVID-19 vaccine; and what's being done to address large COVID outbreaks at numerous county jails and state prisons.