Colorado’s COVID-19 hospitalizations remain high heading into Thanksgiving, officials warn

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There are early signs that COVID-19 cases in Colorado might be plateauing, but health officials warned that high hospitalization figures and the coming holiday suggest the state is still in the thick of its latest pandemic surge, and the threat to the health system has not lessened.

“This isn’t the time to assume that things are getting better,” Eric France, the state’s chief medical officer, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. 

The average number of cases Colorado reports each day has fallen over the past week, according to state data. Alexis Burakoff, epidemiologist with the Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state “may be starting to a potential plateau” in some areas. But hospitalizations have continued to go up, and as of Wednesday morning, there were 645 acute-care hospital beds left statewide. That’s nearly 1,200 fewer than there were during Colorado’s COVID-19 peak 12 months ago.

What’s more, Colorado has seen other plateaus during this months-long surge: There were brief periods of stabilization in September and October, and neither of those held. France said that though it was “exciting” to see some improvement in cases, he “wouldn’t be surprised if the rates, after being plateaued for a couple of weeks, start to rise again in another 10 days.”

The coming holiday — and the increased travel it’s likely to bring — will likely cause a spike in cases, he and others have said. 

COVID-19’s rise is playing an exacerbating, but not commanding, role in driving the state’s hospitalization capacity crisis. Burnout and stress faced by the health care workforce have left 45% of Colorado hospitals reporting an anticipated staffing shortage in the next seven days. Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incidence commander, said Wednesday that many people delayed care during the first several months of the pandemic and are now sicker  and that is having a “significant impact.” The staffing problems are affecting hospitals’ ability to surge their space, a goal of Gov. Jared Polis’ that has come with a commitment to bring in providers to man more beds. 

As of Wednesday, 1,576 Coloradans are hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases; 84% of them are unvaccinated, according to state data. State figures also indicate the unvaccinated are more than 10 times as likely to be hospitalized for a COVID-19 infection than their inoculated peers.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have accounted for roughly 20% of all taken hospital beds statewide recently, officials have said. 

On Monday and Tuesday, several metro area counties — Denver, Arapahoe, Adams and Jefferson — enacted indoor mask orders, while Broomfield instituted one for city and county buildings. Robin Wittenstein, Denver Health’s CEO, warned Tuesday morning that the hospital system here is on the brink of collapse and that the metro’s hospitals cannot continue on as they are currently. The positive impact that masks will have should be seen in the next few weeks, officials said.

Jon Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said in an email Wednesday that masks “should have (a) local impact, albeit hard to quantify and they have been implemented at the right time with the holidays on us.”

“Statewide impact may not be great — we have a series of epidemics unfolding in different ways across the state with their own drivers,”  he added. “Of course, there is mixing of Coloradans from across the state, but the impact will be primarily in Metro Denver.”

Though the plateau may be an aberration, more than a third of the state’s eligible residents have already received a booster, France said. The state has set a goal of reaching 75% of those people in the next month, which modeling suggests should help avert further hospitalizations. But the most important key in that, they’ve stressed, is uptake of vaccinations by those who have yet to do so.