Colorado calls on FEMA for hospital staffing help

About one in every 51 Coloradans is now contagious with COVID-19 as the state registers the fifth-highest rate of new infections compared to population in the country.

With the pace of new coronavirus cases accelerating in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday that the state had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send in medical teams to help in areas where hospitals are especially full.

Over the weekend, he issued orders putting a 30-day moratorium on cosmetic surgeries, giving the state increased control over transferring patients and requiring everyone to wear masks in high-risk settings, like nursing homes and prisons.

The state also recently reopened metro-area mass COVID-19 testing sites at Water World and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Polis encouraged anyone with symptoms to get tested, so they’d be eligible to get treatment with monoclonal antibodies as soon as possible.

Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made copies of cells the body produces to fight COVID-19. They can reduce the risk of hospitalization by 70% to 80% if given in the first 10 days of infection, but aren’t useful once someone is sick enough to end up in the hospital.

The rate of new COVID-19 infections in Colorado has accelerated over the last two weeks, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said. Only Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming have higher case rates compared to population.

Most of the state’s large counties have seen increasing cases, though the trend line is especially steep in Pueblo County, which is concerning, Herlihy said. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is roughly the same time that Colorado saw rapidly increasing cases last year, though it’s not clear if that reflects changes in the weather itself or in human behavior, she said.

If the current trajectory continues, the state should stay slightly below the peak set in December 2020, when 1,847 people were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19, Herlihy said. If transmission control goes down by 5%, though, it’s possible the state could exceed the previous peak, she said. Transmission control is an umbrella term that includes a mix of individual behaviors, like wearing masks and moving gatherings outdoors, as well as public health measures, such as testing and tracing people’s contacts.

“It’s certainly a scenario we could see,” she said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 1,254 people were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19. About 81% of those hospitalized were unvaccinated, even though only about 27% of Colorado’s adult population isn’t fully vaccinated. Children have a lower vaccination rate, and account for 27 of the hospitalizations.

The state’s hospitals can handle a maximum of about 2,000 COVID patients, assuming they have an expected number of non-COVID patients, officials said. A bad flu season could throw that off, but, fortunately, that hasn’t happened at this point.

Unvaccinated people are about three times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people, and are more than four times as likely to be hospitalized or die, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“It’s never been more dangerous for an unvaccinated person right now,” with a significant majority of hospitalizations coming from a minority of the population, Polis said.

Polis acknowledged it would be “tight” for the next few weeks as the state’s hospitals approached capacity, and said he and others are frustrated by the continued toll among unvaccinated people. To limit the damage, Coloradans need to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or get a booster shot, he said. Federal guidelines only authorize booster shots for certain groups, but Polis has encouraged anyone who got their last shot at least six months ago to get one.

“I have no qualms if (unvaccinated people) have a death wish, but they’re clogging our hospitals,” he said.

Colorado’s rank for hospitalizations isn’t quite as bad as for cases: the state is tied with South Dakota for the ninth-highest rate, according to data compiled by The New York Times. Nationwide, cases have started to rise again, raising concerns that hospitalizations and deaths could follow.

The state is heavily promoting monoclonal antibody treatments as a way to reduce strain on hospitals. Herlihy estimated that if about half of people who are eligible for monoclonal antibodies received them, it would cut hospitalizations at the upcoming peak by more than 20%.

To be eligible for monoclonal antibody treatment, a person must be at least 12, have mild or moderate COVID-19 symptoms that started in the last 10 days and have at least one risk factor, such as being over 65, being pregnant or having a chronic health condition.

Statewide, 161 hospitals, pharmacies, clinics and other locations are treating people with antibodies, said Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander. Two buses also are driving to areas without easy access, and three others will hit the road soon, he said.

While monoclonal antibodies are helpful, the best way to prevent severe illness from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, Herlihy said. Full vaccination reduces the risk of hospitalization by about 94% for people under 60, though it’s less effective in older people, who are less likely to have a strong immune response, she said.

“We really do continue to see this as a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she said.

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