Jared Polis dons a mask. The Associated Press.jpg

Jared Polis puts on a mask. File photo. Photo Credit: The Associated Press.

There are only three available intensive-care beds in Weld County, five in Pueblo, 14 in Colorado Springs and 25 in Denver, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday afternoon.

With 4,150 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the state is at the "height of infection," Polis said at a COVID-19 news conference, adding that approximately one in every 41 Coloradans is contagious with the sometimes deadly virus.

Thirty-one Colorado hospitals have staffing shortages, he said. While the number of new daily diagnoses may be dropping or plateauing — it's still a bit too early to tell — hospitalizations continue to rise, officials said.

Officials from health departments in Denver, El Paso, Pueblo and Weld counties did not respond to questions about their counties' plans to deal with ICU shortage beds or when their counties might switch to "purple" lockdown status, reserved for counties whose "hospital capacity risks being breached."

When asked if the shortage of ICU beds in specific counties meant the state health department would be reclassifying those counties as "purple," officials replied, "No county in Colorado is in level purple," adding that no alternate care sites have been activated by the state.

To help alleviate hospital's with full ICUs, the Colorado Hospital Association set up a combined hospital transfer center that connects hospitals across the state to share capacity, said Julie Lonberg, a spokeswoman for the association. Through the system one hospital with a full ICU could send a patient with critical needs to the another, and a patient with less critical needs could be accepted by the hospital with the full ICU, she said.

"This is all working OK today. If this growth continues unchecked as it has, we will not be able to meet the needs forever," Lonberg said.

The state has activated contracts with agencies to provide additional health care workers and ease staffing shortages, but those contracts have provided workers to skilled nursing facilities and nursing homes, she said.

Finding additional hospital staff members is a struggle because the virus is spiking across the country, she said.

Denver-based pulmonologist Dr. Kolene Bailey said while hospital systems have the ability to add bed space, the limited numbers of ICU beds, as stated by Polis emphasizes the urgent need for action to slow the virus.

"The more patients we have, the more stretched thin we are," Bailey said.

Overall, COVID-19 cases in the state may be stabilizing, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, an epidemiologist with the state health department, referencing largely declining daily case counts since Thursday.

"It could be our easiest indication that some of the precautions Coloradans are taking are making a difference," Herlihy said, adding that the effects of actions taken "a week ago, two weeks ago" are just now being reflected in the data. "It's really too soon to know if this is going to be a lasting trend. We would like to see several days more of data."

On the state's current trajectory, it will see an estimated 6,600 COVID-19 deaths this year by the end of December — nearly triple the 2,456 deaths seen so far, Herlihy said, adding that the state is now projected to exceed ICU capacity by January, an improvement upon previous forecasts that it would do so by December or even November.

The projected death total can be decreased "by thousands" if Coloradans buckle down on basics like hand-washing, social-distancing and mask-wearing, she said.

"At that high rate of disease transmission, we are unfortunately going to see an increasing number of deaths occur," she added, calling the level of transmission "unprecedented."

In other COVID-19 news:

- Polis said the state would convene a taskforce focused on "getting kids back to in-person learning in January," with its first meeting to be held tomorrow. He said he strongly believes that schools are the "safest place" for both teachers and students, regardless of community outbreaks. The goal will be "uninterrupted" learning for all grade levels. He acknowledged staffing as an issue, in light of quarantines, but said just because the challenge is significant "doesn't mean we should back away."

- Regarding counties that choose to ignore the state's order to downgrade their status on the state's COVID-19 dial, and business owners who failed to heed public health orders, "It's time for every Coloradan, including county elected officials, to really ask themselves, 'Are you on the side of the virus, or on the side of Colorado?'" Polis said. Businesses are always subject to state law and monitored by regulatory agencies, he added. "It's no different than it's always been, regardless of the personal opinion of county commissioners, whether salmonella or hepatitis A exist or not," he said, referencing two foodborne illnesses sometimes spread by restaurants. Businesses may lose their licenses if they choose not to heed Colorado law, he added.

Gazette reporter Mary Shinn contributed to this article.

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