Denver prepares for fall COVID wave as Colorado hospitalizations drop
Denver’s public health department is treating the current decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as a lull ahead of a looming fall spike, but not everyone is betting that’s a certainty.
Right now, the virus is sickening fewer people in Colorado than it was a few weeks ago, and hospitalizations this week dropped below 200 statewide for the first time since May. They were still more than double the low point they hit in April 2022, though.
In 2020, cases started rising slowly in September, then took off in October. In 2021, there was a more-gradual rise from July to November, before the omicron variant sent cases sky-high in December.
Given COVID-19’s seasonal pattern in Colorado, infections are going to rise again in the coming months, said Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. But no one is sure how big the fall wave might be, he said.
“There will be another spike this fall. That’s going to happen,” he said.
Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, is less confident that the seasonal pattern will repeat. So many people have at least some immunity to the dominant BA.5 variant that even reopening schools and moving activities indoors isn’t likely to reverse the drop in cases, he said.
“We’re at a good place as far as BA.5,” he said. “The critical factor is, is there another variant looming?”
At the moment, the virus appears to be in retreat. Case counts and some other measures are fuzzier than in previous stages of the pandemic, because most people are testing at home, or not at all. Still, that’s been the situation for months, meaning it’s possible to see patterns.
Hospitalizations continued to fall, for a fourth week. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 184 people were receiving hospital care for COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon, compared to 236 at the same time last week.
Cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive both dropped again. The state health department recorded 6,106 cases in the week ending Sunday, which was about 1,200 fewer than the previous week. An average of 6.6% of tests came back positive over the past seven days, down from a 7.6% average at this time last week.
The number of active COVID-19 outbreaks also dropped, to 299 on Wednesday from 344 a week earlier. The state only posts outbreaks in certain health care facilities, correctional settings, child care centers, homeless shelters and overnight camps.
It’s not completely clear how many people were infected in the last few months, but it may be enough to limit disruption this fall, McDonald said. A recent infection or booster shot tends to increase immunity for a few months, though successive variants have gotten better at hiding from the immune system. Protection against severe illness and death lasts longer.
“We’ve had an elevated level of (infection-induced) immunity through the summer, which might not be a bad thing,” he said.
People who are eligible for a booster shot and haven’t gotten one should do so now, McDonald said. While boosters designed to target the latest variants are coming this fall, it’s not clear how much advantage they’ll offer over the current shots. And people who receive a booster shot now will likely be cleared for an updated shot in a few months, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t yet issued guidance, he said.
“There generally isn’t any concern with being over-vaccinated,” he said.
At least in Denver, the strategy for this fall is largely to let people assess their risk level and decide what precautions they want to take, McDonald said. Gov. Jared Polis has also emphasized “personal responsibility” in dealing with the virus, and the CDC recently ended its recommendation that people quarantine after exposure, though it still asks them to wear masks and get tested.
Some in public health have criticized the CDC’s guidelines as removing protections for people at higher risk of severe disease, and potentially setting up a surge of long COVID cases in the future.
The state’s public health order still requires people to wear masks in most medical facilities when cases are “substantial” or “high” on the CDC’s transmission dashboard. All but 10 Colorado counties fall into one of those categories as of Wednesday. The exceptions are Bent, Conejos, Custer, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Huerfano, Jackson, Montrose, Ouray and San Juan counties.
The Denver health department is stocking up on masks to give out to the public if there’s strong demand this fall, McDonald said. It also could issue public health orders or even temporarily close buildings with excessive transmission, as it does when schools have a norovirus outbreak, but that probably won’t be necessary, he said.
“We can manage with awareness and not with public health mandates,” he said. “I don’t think we will be in the position we were in last year where it was getting critical.”
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