Omicron spreading as Colorado COVID hospitalizations tick up
Colorado appears to be headed into another COVID-19 surge, just four weeks after the delta-fueled wave started to break.
Hospitalizations bottomed out on Saturday, with 992 people receiving care for confirmed COVID-19. By Monday afternoon, that had risen to 1,018.
It’s not unusual for hospitalizations to rise slightly after a holiday, as people who put off seeking care start feeling sick enough that they can’t wait any longer. But given how steeply new admissions jumped in recent days, that’s probably not the only factor, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 227 people were admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 on Monday, compared to 66 a week ago.
“Omicron has arrived in Colorado and it’s spreading like wildfire,” she said.
As in previous waves, the percentage of tests coming back positive rose first, followed by new cases and hospital admissions. An average of 12.6% of COVID-19 tests back positive in the week ending Sunday — the highest rate since mid-November 2020. When the positivity rate is that high, it suggests the actual number of cases may be significantly higher than what the state has found.
As it was, the state health department recorded 22,658 new cases in the week ending Sunday. The last time the state found more cases was in early December 2020.
While there’s a growing consensus that people infected with the omicron variant are less likely to be hospitalized that those who had the delta variant, it’s not clear how much lower the risk is, and whether everyone will see their individual risk drop, Carlton said.
But even if each individual’s risk is lower, the risk to the population as a whole can be significant. Omicron has shown it can infect huge numbers of people, and if even a small percentage of them become severely ill, hospitals could be pushed to the breaking point. It’s possible Colorado could see a peak as high as it did in November, something comparable to the worst point in December 2020, or even “unprecedented” levels of hospitalizations, Carlton said.
“I think the unresolved question is how high will hospital demand get,” she said.
Studies have estimated omicron could be anywhere from 20% to 80% less severe than delta. In comparison, the original version of COVID-19 that hit the United States in March 2020 was about 50% less severe than delta, Carlton said. Of course, more treatments are available now, and some people who died in early 2020 would survive now, but even a less-severe version of the virus can be deadly for people without immunity, she said.
“We remain most concerned about adults who are unvaccinated,” she said.
So far, vaccination appears to prevent most severe illnesses from omicron, though it’s not as effective as it was against delta. A third shot provides extra protection, though a British study found people who’ve had a booster may still get breakthrough cases with symptoms. Generally, those symptoms have been mild.
The good news is that omicron is so contagious that it will run out of people to infect before long, Carlton said. That means that people who are concerned about their risk can upgrade their masks and perhaps restrict their social engagements for a few weeks, knowing they won’t have to keep it up for months on end, she said.
“This wave is going to be fast,” she said.
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