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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

As Colorado’s hospital beds fill up with COVID-19 patients, health officials sound alarms

File photo from April 20, 2021, of Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, speaking as Gov. Jared Polis looks on during a news conference on the state's efforts against the coronavirus.
David Zalubowski
File photo from April 20, 2021, of Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, speaking as Gov. Jared Polis looks on during a news conference. Herlihy told reporters this week that a worsening spread of the coronavirus could "significantly hamper" the state's hospitals' ability to care for critically ill patients.

On Dec. 2, 2020, Colorado hospitals were stretched to the limit at one of the worst moments so far in the coronavirus pandemic. There were 1,841 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 and another 154 suspected of having the virus.

The spike in hospitalizations came before vaccines had been rolled out. This year, a similar spike is emerging and could hit its high point around the Thanksgiving holiday. Projections from state health officials are predicting between 1,500 and 1,900 coronavirus hospitalizations in the weeks ahead.

“We think that maximum capacity is probably around 2,000 (hospital beds), meaning if we see a worsening of transmission control in the state, that could certainly significantly hamper our health care system's ability to care for our most severely ill patients,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s chief epidemiologist, told reporters this week.

As of Thursday, the most recent data available, 1,267 Coloradans were hospitalized for COVID-19 and another 106 are suspected of having the virus. With hospitalizations rising steadily for weeks, hospitals have upped the urgency in sounding alarms.

“Our health care system is in jeopardy of being overwhelmed if we don’t quickly change the course of what we are seeing,” Cara Welch of the Colorado Hospital Association told KUNC.

Complicating the picture, about 37% of facilities are predicting staff shortages in the week to come. The state this week turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ask for help caring for patients at short-staffed hospitals.

Moreover, almost one-third of hospitals are predicting shortages of ICU beds in the week ahead, according to state data. In a press conference Friday, state COVID incident commander Scott Bookman confirmed hospitals are reaching a breaking point.

“As of today, looking at the data that is reported by the hospitals, we are at the lowest number of beds we've had available and we do have less than 100 ICU beds open at this moment,” Bookman said. “Now that number fluctuates. We know that people move in and out of beds. But the downward trend does continue.”

Map of ICU beds available by region in Colorado, as of Nov. 5, 2021.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
Map of ICU beds available by region in Colorado, as of Nov. 5, 2021.

Gov. Jared Polis this week signed an order allowing hospitals to turn away patients if they’re at capacity. Hospitals struggling with capacity could also transition patients to other facilities around the state.

With about 80% of COVID-19 hospitalizations involving unvaccinated patients, Polis expressed frustration over the situation in a press conference earlier this week.

“I'm frustrated because unlike a year ago where we were all in this together and we had great sympathy for anybody afflicted and we were all wearing masks to protect one another – now's the time where most of us are protected, and yet the 20% that haven't yet chosen to get protected are putting themselves at risk,” he said, “which you can certainly argue is their own business, and I have no qualms if they have a death wish, but they're clogging our hospitals.”

Polis, hospitals and state health officials have doubled down on familiar public health messages, urging the unvaccinated to get vaccinated and those who have long been vaccinated to consider booster shots. Coronavirus vaccination numbers continue to rise, especially as employer mandates take hold. About 72% of Coloradans are fully vaccinated and more are eligible as vaccinations roll out for children as young as 5.

Heather Roth, the chief of the immunization branch at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state has partnered with zoos, museums and other kid-friendly places to make vaccinations fun.

“We want to make this opportunity in this vaccination experience for kids a positive experience,” Roth said. “They are going to have to come back 21 days later for a second dose and so doing everything that we can to partner with youth focused organizations and kind of fun activities in local communities.“

A full list of vaccination clinics for children can be found at the state’s website for COVID-19, here: https://covid19.colorado.gov/kids-vaccines

Yet even vaccinated individuals can become ill. About one in 51 Coloradans are currently infected with the virus, leading officials to also emphasize that precautions, like wearing masks, can make a difference in curbing hospitalizations. While the state’s mandate for masks has long been limited to settings like hospitals and residential care facilities, local authorities may have their own rules in place, like at schools.

State health officials are also advising monoclonal antibodies to qualifying patients in an effort to stave off hospitalizations.

“These are treatments that are incredibly effective and, you know, keeping people out of the hospitals, having a less severe course of disease,” Bookman, the state COVID incident commander, said.

Amid all of this, state health officials are left with a mystery: why are cases in Colorado rising when they’ve been trending down in many states in recent weeks? Asked that question by KUNC, Herlihy offered an educated guess. She said that COVID-19 might behave kind of like the flu, spreading at certain times of year.

“Last year, it was the same thing,” she said. “It was late November or early December, and that's again what we're forecasting right now. So I think there is something, something with seasonality, human behavior. It's hard to know. Is it temperature? Is it humidity? Is it human behavior? When the weather changes, it's hard to really know exactly what it might be, but it does seem like there is some element of seasonality here.”

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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