Colorado’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose for a second day Tuesday, raising concerns that Monday’s increase wasn’t just an after-effect of the weekend’s snowstorm, and suggesting the state may not be in a position to further loosen restrictions immediately.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 388 people were hospitalized across the state with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 as of Tuesday. For most of last week, hospitalizations had bounced between 320 and 350 before rising to 369 on Monday.
That level of increase isn’t alarming in itself, Gov. Jared Polis said during a news briefing Tuesday, but the state could face a problem if it becomes a trend.
As more of the people most vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19 are vaccinated, the risk of overwhelming hospitals will continue to fall, however, and the state could give counties more control over their own public health restrictions in the coming weeks, he said.
“It’s important that we continue to live in a sustainable way for a bit longer,” he said.
It’s difficult to tell if the second day of increases is meaningless “noise” in the data, or a sign that the virus is spreading more widely, Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said during the news conference. The situation should become clearer over the next week, but in the meantime, it’s “tough” to know if the public should stay the course with their current behavior or take additional precautions, he said.
State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said both new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations aren’t steadily decreasing, as they did after the deadly fall peak. Both numbers have fallen substantially, but remain above the lows seen over the summer.
That indicates the current efforts to control the virus are preventing out-of-control spread, but there isn’t much room to loosen up without allowing more illnesses, she said.
“We really have reached a bit of a high plateau in the state,” she said. “We need the strategies we have been using.”
The virus is in check in most of Colorado, but three regions in the western half of the state — a large area that covers the San Luis Valley and Eagle, Pitkin, Summit, Delta and Gunnison counties — are seeing high levels of spread, Samet said. Those include some of the state’s more popular ski destinations, he said.
The emergence of new versions of the virus causing COVID-19 further complicates efforts to tell which way cases and hospitalizations will trend. The state is finding more cases of a variant first identified in California, and concerns are rising that it may be more contagious than versions of the virus that were previously circulating in Colorado, Herlihy said.
The state lab has found three more cases of the B.1.351 variant, first found in South Africa, which brings the total to 11, Herlihy said. The immune system has a harder time recognizing that variant, meaning vaccines may be somewhat less effective and people who were previously infected could get COVID-19 again.
In one case, investigators still need to interview the person about potential sources of exposure, but the other 10 cases are connected to the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, Herlihy said.
Herlihy estimated between 8% and 10% of COVID-19 cases in Colorado are caused by the more-contagious and possibly more-deadly B.1.1.7 variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom. That’s an increase over time, but not as steep as the one seen in the U.K., she said. The modeling data had suggested the variant could account for 13% of infections by now if Colorado was on the same path.
“This is the reason why masks continue to be important,” she said.
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