Colorado’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases increased slightly over the past week, but it’s not clear whether the virus is preparing for another wave or a relative reprieve.
Hospitalizations rose marginally, with 315 reported as of Tuesday afternoon. A week earlier, 304 people were hospitalized statewide with the virus, but it’s not clear if the change is meaningful.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 15,179 new cases in the week ending Sunday, which was an increase of 2,067 from the previous week. The week ending June 19 was the first time cases had fallen since March.
The percentage of tests coming back positive seemed to have leveled out, however, with the average bouncing around 11%. Outbreaks also remained roughly stable, dropping by two to 573.
“I think the word of the day is ‘plateau,’” said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
The number of counties considered high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped from 24 to 16: Alamosa, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Conejos, Costilla, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer, Mineral, Pitkin, Rio Grande, Routt, Saguache and San Juan.
Counties are considered high risk if they have at least 200 new cases per 100,000 people and are showing signs hospitals could become strained.
Carlton is part of the state’s COVID-19 modeling team, which released a report Friday projecting a decrease in cases and hospitalizations in the coming weeks. The last few days haven’t shown that, but it’s too early to know if the plateau will be followed by a decrease or increase, she said.
“I think the big open question is what’s going to happen with BA.4 and (BA.)5,” she said, referring to new omicron variants. “Our best guess is that we’re going to see things taper off, but we put in a big asterisk.”
On Friday, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said she was “feeling optimistic” based on the projections and recent trends.
“We will continue to monitor trends as increased transmission may occur if new variants emerge or as we enter the typical respiratory virus season later this fall,” she said in a news release.
The CDC estimated BA.4 and BA.5 now account for a combined 52% of cases nationwide, while the state health department found those variants in about 30% of sequenced samples as of June 5.
BA.5 is growing faster, but the two are often grouped together because their spike proteins (the part that binds to cells, allowing the virus to enter) are identical, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. A small study found that antibodies from being vaccinated three times or from being infected with previous versions of omicron weren’t very effective in shutting down those two variants, meaning reinfections are likely.
Reinfections are widely expected to be less severe than first bouts with the virus, but a new study using data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suggested that may not be the case. It found people who had second and third infections experienced more complications and were more likely to die than those who had one infection or never had the virus. The study hasn’t gone through the process of review by other scientists, though, and it’s possible the patients who had multiple infections were in some way different than those who didn’t, or that the researchers made a mistake.
The state modeling report estimated that somewhere between one in every 42 people and one in every 55 in Colorado was contagious as of mid-June, which would be the highest number of infections since February. The prevalence is probably still close to that, so it’s a good idea to continue wearing masks and make sure you and your children are up-to-date on vaccines, Carlton said.
“In terms of exposure risk, it’s probably similar to parts of the first omicron wave,” she said. “Every tool in our toolbox is useful at this point.”
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