Colorado COVID hospitalizations rise notably for first time since June

Colorado’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose notably over the last week for the first time since June, though they were still relatively low.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 218 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 183 a week earlier, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. About two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks were primarily for the virus.

The state recorded 5,066 new cases in the week ending Sunday, which was about 300 more than in the previous week. An average of 10.2% of COVID-19 tests in the state came back positive over the last seven days, up from 8.9% a week earlier.

It’s difficult to see a statewide trend in virus concentrations in wastewater, but the amount detected was rising in 17 watersheds and falling in only seven. It was flat in 14 watersheds.

Given that cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive have been trending up over the last two weeks, it appears that the rise in hospitalizations points to a real increase in infections, said Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health.

It’s difficult to tell how widespread the virus may be, because fewer people are getting tested and the data is less clear than in the past, he said.

“That’s the worrisome part,” he said. “The hopeful part is that from the 200s (of hospitalizations), we’re not near the peaks we’ve seen.”

At the pandemic’s worst point in Colorado, in December 2020, more than 1,800 people were hospitalized. The state hit lower, but still significant, peaks of nearly 1,600 in November 2021 and nearly 1,700 in January 2022. It’s unlikely Colorado will experience anything like that in the near future, since so many people have some protection from vaccination, prior infections, or both.

Nationwide, cases and hospitalizations have stopped falling and may be starting to rise slightly, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s model projects COVID-19 deaths nationwide will continue to hover around 300 per day this winter. That’s far lower than the worst points of last winter, when as many as 2,500 people died each day, and the model projected that widespread mask-wearing in public could reduce it by another third.

A winter toll of 300 deaths per day nationwide would be comparable to a bad flu season. Unlike influenza, however, COVID-19 hasn’t settled into a clear seasonal pattern, with cases and deaths rising in one part of the country as they fall in another. If it continued to kill 300 people a day indefinitely, that would be roughly the equivalent of two bad flu seasons each year, on top of whatever toll influenza itself took.

Germany and the United Kingdom experienced sudden, but brief, increases in COVID-19 infections this fall, Samet said. It’s possible the same thing will happen in the United States, but that will depend on which variants of the virus are circulating and how many people get their booster shots, he said.

BA.5, which was the dominant variant until recently, now causes just under half of cases nationwide, the CDC estimated. It’s being displaced by related variants BF.7, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which have grown their shares in recent weeks.

In Colorado, BA.5 still accounted for 65% of genetically sequenced samples as of Oct. 16. It takes about two weeks to process the samples, so the data always lags behind.

It’s not yet clear how different the ascendant variants are from each other or from BA.5, though the fact that they’re gaining steam suggests they’re better than BA.5 at evading immunity, Samet said. All of those variants are members of the omicron family.

So far, less than 16% of all eligible Coloradans have gotten the updated booster shot, though about 32% of those over 65 have. It’s not clear how many of those who haven’t received the shot got previous boosters.

A study that hasn’t yet gone through the process of criticism and refinement by other scientists suggested antibody levels were about the same regardless of whether a person had four doses of the original shots, or three of the original followed by the omicron-targeted shot.

If it’s true that the new shots targeting recent variants aren’t significantly better than the older ones, that will be a disappointment for scientists who supported the switch — though a person who hasn’t recently had a shot or an infection is better off getting a booster than not. Unvaccinated people remain at a much higher risk of dying than those who’ve have had at least two shots, with boosters further reducing the risk, especially for older people.

The question now is how the system will cope with other respiratory viruses circulating at the same time, Samet said. Children’s Hospital Colorado reported this week that it’s running near capacity because so many children have respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which usually causes colds but can be severe in babies and toddlers. As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported flu activity was still low in Colorado, but some southern states have seen an early jump in hospitalizations.

This week, an average of 88% of intensive-care beds and 90% of general hospital beds were full. Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t common for more than 80% of either type of beds to be in use statewide.

Fortunately, many of the same measures, like wearing well-fitting masks and washing hands frequently, protect people against all three viruses, Samet said. There’s no vaccine available for RSV, but getting your flu shot and COVID-19 booster reduce the odds you’ll get sick and help protect the health care system, he said.

Receiving more than one type shot at a time doesn’t lead to a decreased immune response for other vaccines, though the specific combination of flu and COVID-19 hasn’t been studied. There is some increased risk of side effects like headaches and chills, however, so people who are worried about those reactions might choose to wait a few days between shots.

“People can take the basic steps to protect themselves,” he said.

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