Colorado's omicron wave may be subsiding, but COVID-19 cases remain very high
Colorado’s top public health investigator believes that the latest coronavirus wave may be ending.
“We have multiple ways of looking at the data to try and estimate if the decrease we're seeing is a real decrease,” state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy told reporters Thursday. “At this point, I do believe that we are seeing a true decline in cases in the state.”
Herlihy expressed cautious optimism at several trends. Omicron cases and positive COVID-19 tests have declined in roughly the last week, apparently mirroring national data.
Yet the state is still gripped by the virus. Cases and positivity rates are higher than in prior waves, straining businesses and schools as workers call in sick or quarantine after being exposed.
“We have seen a lot of workforce issues associated with this,” said Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander. “You know, there are just so many Coloradans who are infected with this. It's impacting so many different areas.”
State and federal leaders have ramped up the availability of free tests and continue to push vaccines amid the surge. Free masks, including KN95 masks which are believed to be more effective at lowering transmission than cloth coverings, are available at 272 locations around the state.
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The cautious optimism that the latest wave is subsiding comes with some lingering questions about a key metric, hospitalizations, which officials have watched closely since the pandemic began in 2020. While that number appears to have hit a plateau at around 1,650 or so cases, Herlihy could not say for certain whether hospitalizations are declining.
“I'd like to see this number continue to go down to feel confident that we're in a true downward trajectory for hospitalizations, but the timing is right,” Herlihy said.
Hospitalizations as of this week remained markedly higher than in late December, when they were around 1,200, and November, which hovered around 1,500 during a prior surge.
Hospitalizations represent the most severe cases and can include life-saving measures like the use of ventilators, about a third of which are in use across the state.
About 64% of patients currently hospitalized due to COVID-19 were not vaccinated, Herlihy said, citing state data.
Coloradans who have not been vaccinated are 46 times more at risk of being hospitalized for COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated and have received a booster recently, she added. People who are vaccinated but have not received a booster dose are seven times more at risk of contracting the virus.
Asked if signs that omicron’s grip is fading represent a last gasp of the pandemic, Herlihy said it’s too early to tell.
“We're working to try and understand what proportion of Colorado's population could potentially be immune at this point,” she said. “But I also want to say that we've seen new challenges presented by this virus over and over again. We know that it's possible that omicron is not the last variant we're going to see and so I think we need to continue to be vigilant.”