“Unprecedented” COVID surge hasn’t yet overwhelmed Colorado hospitals

Since the fast-spreading new omicron variant is less severe than the once-dominant delta, Colorado’s current COVID-19 situation is precarious, rather than catastrophic.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 50,974 new coronavirus infections statewide in the week ending Sunday, a 75% increase over the prior week — and a tally that blows past the state’s single-week record of 37,804 set in November 2020.

About 24% of COVID-19 tests taken in Colorado came back positive over the last week. That’s worse than in April 2020 — when it was difficult to get tested if you hadn’t traveled to China — and indicates the virus is even more widespread than the skyrocketing case numbers would indicate.

If omicron were as likely to cause as severe illness as the delta variant, the “unprecedented” case surge since Christmas would have led to a devastating wave of hospitalizations, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Colorado’s current hospital capacity is tight, but not completely overwhelmed.

As of Monday afternoon, 1,167 people were hospitalized statewide with confirmed COVID-19, a 17% increase since Christmas, the day the state’s month-long drop in virus hospitalizations came to an end. About 93% of both intensive-care and general hospital beds were in use Monday.

Overall, most patients in Colorado hospitals are being treated for something other than the virus, but there isn’t much room to spare if COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to increase.

One bit of good news is that ventilator use is down, indicating people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the current wave generally aren’t as sick as those in previous surges, Carlton said. People in public health are also trying to get better data on whether more of the people were hospitalized for something other than the virus and happened to test positive than in previous waves, as was seen in South Africa, she said.

“I remain concerned about hospital capacity, but I’m less concerned than I was a few weeks ago,” she said.

Children’s Hospital Colorado reported it has seen “many” incidental admissions — where the patient comes in for something else — but also is dealing with an increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19. It’s not clear what the situation is in Colorado hospitals serving adult patients.

While omicron is causing more breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, the data suggests those who’ve had a booster shot or had their second shot less than six months ago are well-protected against severe illness, Carlton said.

“The unvaccinated face the greatest risk,” she said. “The vaccines and boosters are not perfect, but they are an extremely effective tool.”

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 12 to 15, and allowed them to get it five months after their second shot. People 16 and older who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine were told to wait six months.

The FDA also said younger children with compromised immune systems could get a third Pfizer dose four weeks after their second dose. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines aren’t yet authorized for children.

The state’s COVID-19 modeling team hasn’t released projections for the current surge, but did post a statement on Monday urging the public to get vaccinated, wear masks in public, limit social interactions indoors and stay home if they aren’t feeling well. While any individual’s risk of becoming seriously ill is lower with omicron than with delta, the sheer number of people infected means that even if a smaller percentage need hospital beds, it could overwhelm an already strained system.

“The highly infectious nature of this variant means that this wave could be shorter but also be more severe than prior waves,” the statement said. “We are most concerned about unvaccinated and immunocompromised individuals, who face the greatest risk of severe COVID-19 due to omicron infection.”

In South Africa, omicron took off like a rocket, then promptly crashed. It’s not clear if the same thing will happen in the United States, though, which has very different demographics. Experts are watching the United Kingdom, because the American experience with COVID-19 has generally mirrored the British one.

The variant has caused significant disruption nationwide. While canceled flights are the most visible effect, some cities have reported trouble providing basic services because so many firefighters and police officers are out sick, according to The Associated Press. While most people who are infected won’t become seriously ill, it’s a problem for society if large numbers of people are unable to work, Carlton said.

“Less severe doesn’t mean we should all go get infected,” she said.

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