Colorado COVID hospitalizations go up, but are expected to fall again

Colorado’s COVID-19 numbers plateaued this week after falling for a month, though that may be a temporary pause as people return to schools and offices.

The latest report from the state’s modeling team projects that COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases will keep dropping through mid-October, unless a new variant throws a wrench in. By that point, hospitalizations are expected to be close to the low point set this spring, when 77 people were receiving care for the virus.

This week, however, hospitalizations ticked up slightly. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 195 people were receiving hospital care on Tuesday, up from 184 a week earlier. New admissions per day have risen slightly since Aug. 24, though it’s not clear if that’s a blip or the start of a trend.

New cases were essentially unchanged. The state health department reported 6,116 cases in the week ending Sunday, a marginal increase from 6,099 the previous week. The percentage of tests coming back positive also remained relatively stable, dropping to an average of 6.2% over the past week, compared to 6.6% a week earlier.

It’s possible that the downward trajectory has paused because kids returned to school and adults went back to their offices, meaning the virus has more chances to spread, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health and a member of the state’s modeling team.

It’s “a little unclear what we’re happening now, whether we’re seeing a small pulse of infections as mixing patterns change,” she said.

The number of active outbreaks dropped to 280. The state only reports outbreaks in correctional facilities, some health care settings, child care centers, overnight camps and homeless shelters. Schools are still required to report outbreaks to the state, but that information won’t be released to the public.

Nationwide, cases and hospitalizations have continued to drop slowly, according to data from The New York Times.

The Colorado modeling report estimated about one in every 162 people was contagious as of mid-August. That’s comparable to early June, when cases were starting to rise, or the very end of the winter wave, Carlton said. It’s also a significant improvement from a month ago, she said.

So many people have had a recent infection that the BA.5 variant is running short on hosts, Carlton said. The modeling team estimated about 80% of Coloradans have enough immunity to protect them from a severe infection, and somewhere between 60% and 70% may be protected from even a mild infection with that variant in the short term.

Of course, that can change over time as immunity wanes or new variants arrive.

“We think immunity to severe disease is pretty high in the Colorado population,” she said.

Nationwide, BA.5 accounts for about 89% of cases, though BA.4.6 is slowly increasing its share, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Colorado, the most recent data is from late July, when BA.5 was found in 87% of genetically sequenced samples, and BA.4.6 was found in less than 2%.

Colorado and the rest of the country are in a significantly better place than they were in fall 2020 or 2021, with most people having some protection from a severe illness, Carlton said. Antiviral treatments like Paxlovid to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death are also available now.

Still, death rates are higher than normal, with about five Coloradans dying of COVID-19 every day in the last few weeks, she said. That’s far fewer than earlier in the pandemic, but even if no one else died from the virus this year, the state has already seen three to four times the 500 to 700 deaths that influenza and pneumonia cause in a typical season.

“This is not the same as the flu,” she said.

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