COVID-19 outbreaks vs. cases: What you need to know


DENVER (KDVR) — Outbreak data confirms the reason Denver metro counties tightened restrictions this week – but what is the difference between outbreaks and cases, and how does the average Coloradan even look at them?

Apart from the confinement, stress and uncertainty, COVID-19’s worst curse is the confusion it creates. Health officials bombard the public with data and statistics on an hourly basis, much of it technical and hard to understand.

Not all COVID-19 cases come from COVID-19 outbreaks, but all COVID-19 outbreaks create cases.

An outbreak happens when two or more people trace infections to the same place within a two-week window. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tracks these by location and pays close attention to them because of their potential to spread the coronavirus further into the community.

Individual cases are not connected to each other by location and not tracked by location.

Most of the state’s cases do not come from outbreaks. They are isolated cases.

Only one-fifth of the state’s COVID-19 cases come from outbreaks. The amount of cases coming from outbreaks, however, has gone up in the fall along with overall cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates. September and October both produced more cases from outbreaks than any months since April.

The 10 outbreaks that caused the most COVID-19 cases happened in three kinds of places- correctional centers, healthcare facilities and universities. These are the large outbreaks that typically grab news attention because of their scope and their potential to spread infections into the community.

Though outbreaks only cause a fraction of overall cases, they are typically tied to cases. The more outbreaks, the more total cases.

This is bad news for October. This month produced twice as many outbreaks than any month yet.

Each outbreak produces a certain amount of confirmed and suspected cases.

Outbreaks produce an average 19 cases per outbreak. This average is skewed by several large-scale outbreaks that happen in areas with high concentrations of people in close quarters.

October’s average cases per outbreak was low at 10.1 infection per outbreak.

These stats reinforce what local and state leaders have insisted the last few weeks: practice good mask, hygiene and social distancing habits since virus growth happens in everyday arenas.

Infections are not confined to inaccessible or off-the-road locations like prisons or hospitals. Most infections happen independent of these outbreaks anyway, and the number of these outbreaks has doubled in a month. With a low average case load per outbreak, it means outbreaks point to more cases spread out through the community.

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