New COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continued to drop in Colorado over the last week, a potential silver lining as the virus’s fast-spreading omicron variant marches across the country.
The new variant of the coronavirus so far has been confirmed in only a small number of cases in Colorado, including two announced in Denver on Monday. But omicron has caused a jump in infections everywhere it has landed, experiencing a six-fold increase nationally over the last week to become the dominant variant in the country.
While there’s some evidence that omicron may be less deadly than the delta variant, which currently is responsible for most cases in Colorado, hospitalizations have increased in countries where omicron triggered a new case wave.
Colorado is in a better position than some places because COVID-19 hospitalizations were falling as omicron arrived, said Beth Carlton, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. If the delta wave was still increasing demand for hospital beds when omicron arrived and caused its own wave, it would put that much more strain on already-strapped hospitals, she said.
As of Monday afternoon, 1,086 people were hospitalized statewide with confirmed COVID-19, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That’s the lowest number of patients since Oct. 19, though it’s still a highly elevated level.
Capacity remained tight, though, with about 94% of both general and intensive-care beds occupied. Hospitals are dealing with more non-COVID patients than they had during last fall’s surge, and have had to take beds offline because of a lack of nurses and others to staff them.
New cases also were down for the last week, with 10,268 recorded. In one potentially worrisome sign, the seven-day average of new cases rose slightly on Sunday, though. The percentage of tests coming back positive had started to tick up a few days earlier.
Some fluctuations end up being insignificant, of course, but an increase in the positivity rate and cases is often followed by an increase in hospitalizations.
“In the absence of omicron, things should continue to decline,” Carlton said. “I think all signs point to that omicron is in Colorado and starting to proliferate.”
Omicron has proven adept at outcompeting delta by spreading more easily and infecting people with some existing immunity, either through vaccination or previous infection. What remains unknown is how severe it may be. Hospitalizations rose in South Africa and Denmark after omicron hit, but the question researchers are still trying to answer is whether that increase is lower than would have been expected, given the number of cases, Carlton said.
“I think the big question is how much hospital demand” omicron will drive,” she said.
Denver reported its first two confirmed cases of omicron on Monday. Neither person had recently traveled, suggesting the variant is spreading at low levels in the city. Both people were fully vaccinated, and one had received a booster. Neither is seriously ill.
The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment urged everyone to get vaccinated or get their booster shot. While vaccination seems to offer considerably less protection against omicron than against the delta variant, it still significantly reduces the odds of hospitalization or death.
Denver’s “mask or vax” indoor mask mandate expires on Jan. 3, but officials are monitoring case counts and hospitalization rates, and that order could be extended, Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said Monday. Right now, the data does not suggest the need for any further restrictions beyond that mandate.
“We’re going to be data-driven. And right now case rates are dropping,” he said.
At this point, the vast majority of cases in Denver are caused by delta, though the experience of other highly vaccinated cities shows omicron can take over quickly, McDonald said.
As of Friday, the state health department had identified five omicron cases: two in Arapahoe County, and one each in Boulder, Garfield and Jefferson counties. The last information about the prevalence of different variants came from the week of Dec. 5, and still shows delta accounting for essentially all new cases in Colorado.
But omicron is spreading quickly across the U.S., jumping from about 13% of new cases last week to 73% this week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s variants model. Because of delays in reporting, the CDC has to extrapolate based on incomplete data, so the prevalence could be adjusted as more information comes in.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, warned Sunday that omicron could cause record numbers of cases and hospitalizations in the coming weeks. In scenes reminiscent of March 2020, professional sports leagues canceled games and New Yorkers stood in long lines to get tested this weekend.
It’s not the same situation, however, because more than half of Americans have been vaccinated, giving them at least some protection from severe illness. People at high risk of hospitalization also may be able to get treatment with monoclonal antibodies, though two of the three main options appear to be largely ineffective against omicron.
The Denver health department has urged people gathering for the holidays to consider hosting events where everyone over 5 must be vaccinated; getting tested and isolating if the result is positive; wearing a mask in crowds or around unvaccinated people; holding events outdoors, or making them shorter; and inviting fewer people. Anyone who’s feeling sick should stay home.
“The safest settings are those where everyone is fully vaccinated — and when I say fully vaccinated, I mean boosted as well,” McDonald said.
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