Colorado’s COVID hospitalizations still low but rising faster

COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising faster in Colorado than in recent weeks — though they still remain at relatively low levels — as new infections and the rate at which people are testing positive for the virus continue their upward trajectory in the state.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 144 people were hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon, up from 116 a week earlier and 77 at the most recent low point on April 12.

That’s a 24% rise in one week, which is significant, said Talia Quandelacy, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“That’s a fairly steep climb,” she said. “What we’re starting to see is the reflection of the surge in cases.”

It’s not clear how many people have been admitted solely due to COVID-19; tested positive when admitted for something unrelated; or fall into a middle ground, where the virus may have exacerbated a pre-existing health condition.

The state health department recorded 10,040 new COVID-19 cases in the week ending Sunday. The last time there were five-digit case numbers was the second week of February.

The true number of infections is likely higher, since virus concentrations in wastewater are high and about 8.7% of tests came back positive over the last week, Quandelacy said. Public health officials like to see that positivity rate stay below 5%.

The combination of relaxed precautions and the more-contagious BA.2.12.1 variant are likely driving the increase in transmission, she said. The most recent data, from May 1, shows BA.2.12.1 making up about 39% of cases and steadily increasing its share.

COVID-19 deaths appear to have edged up from 10 in the second week of April to 15 in the fourth week. More recent totals are less certain, because reports take time to come in.

The number of active COVID-19 outbreaks in the state also rose for a third week. The number reported in nursing homes and assisted living facilities increased, while school-based outbreaks dropped.

It’s a good idea for everyone to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces and to get tested after gathering, since the odds of running into someone who’s contagious are rising, Quandelacy said.

“Even though the focus is on preventing hospitalizations, the best way to do that is preventing infections,” she said.

On Friday, Colorado’s modeling team released a report showing hospitalizations could peak at somewhere between 500 and 800 in mid-June. It’s difficult to know which scenario is more likely, because it’s not clear if BA.2.12.1 is better at getting around the immune system than previous versions of omicron, Quandelacy said.

“It’s still hard to anticipate what we’re going to see because of the uncertainties around this variant,” she said.

“Stay home if you’re sick”

Dr. Shauna Gulley, chief clinical officer at Centura Health, said either scenario would be manageable. So far, Centura’s Colorado and west Kansas facilities are seeing a significant increase in people seeking outpatient care for COVID-19, but not much of a rise in hospitalizations. People shouldn’t delay seeking other care they need, she said.

Some experts think, if current trends continue, people could get reinfected three times a year. Vaccination and recent infections are generally protecting people from severe illness, though even a mild case is a miserable experience for many, and it typically takes one to three weeks to feel better, Gulley said.

“This variant is very similar to what we saw in the winter,” she said.

The question is whether enough people now have some immunity to avoid the level of excess death seen during this past winter’s omicron surge.

While a far smaller percentage of people who got the virus were hospitalized or killed than in previous waves, the week ending Jan. 23 was still the fifth-deadliest in Colorado since the pandemic started, because of the sheer number of people infected. (The four weeks with higher death tolls were in November and December 2020.)

Gulley said she’s recommending that people who are eligible for a fourth shot because of their age or health conditions get one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed people over 50 to receive a second booster, but stopped short of strongly recommending it. People with compromised immune systems should get a fourth shot, the CDC said.

The most important thing people can do to control the virus’ spread is stay home if they have respiratory symptoms, other than when they go to get tested and seek treatment, Gulley said.

“I feel like that should be our tagline until the end of time: stay home if you’re sick,” she said.

“This travels across the country”

Nationwide, the seven-day average of cases topped 100,000 for the first time since mid-February, according to data compiled by The New York Times. An average of about 22,000 people were hospitalized nationwide each day over the last week, which is comparable to mid-July.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that about one-third of Americans live in areas under the agency’s medium (yellow) or high (red) risk level guidelines, based on hospitalizations and cases in their counties. She urged people in those areas to take precautions, including indoor masking.

“Prior increases of infections, in different waves of infection, have demonstrated that this travels across the country,” she said at a White House briefing with reporters.

The CDC’s dashboard shows all but two Colorado counties at the low (green) level, though Denver announced Friday that its metrics would put it in yellow alongside Boulder and Mineral counties.

Under the old community transmission standards, which put more weight on case counts than the current framework, half of U.S. counties would be considered to have high spread, including 23 of Colorado’s 64 counties.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis signed a package of bills intended to increase the health care workforce and to require hospitals to prepare for future COVID-19 surges and unforeseen threats. He also released a statement urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize vaccines for younger children this week. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to discuss Moderna’s application to authorize its vaccine for children under 5 on Thursday.

“Families with children younger than 5 are increasingly frustrated and worried for their children’s safety. I urge the FDA to approve and ACIP to review Moderna’s application this Thursday to give parents peace of mind, and cut red tape to help families safely visit their relatives or enjoy summer activities with peace of mind,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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