Gov. Jared Polis expressed no interest Wednesday in reinstating statewide public health measures because the state's hospitals remain stable despite an increase in COVID-19 cases and the continued dominance of the highly contagious delta variant.
The state has largely stepped away from any new COVID-19 measures since the spring when it turned over authority to individual counties. Months after that, counties have ended their own measures, with the fourth pandemic wave seen in the spring having been successfully tamped down.
Polis and state public health officials have said repeatedly that their worry has been hospitalizations, which were long feared to spike to the point of overwhelming the state's facilities. COVID-19 cases have seen a "modest" increase in recent days, but Polis said the stability of Colorado's hospitals gives the state little need to step in.
"I've made it clear from the start: The state nexus is making sure our hospital system is not overwhelmed," he said at a Wednesday news conference. "We have 298 Coloradans that are hospitalized from COVID. To be clear, that's 298 too many. Nobody wishes more than me that it was zero. But that is not a threat to our hospital capacity."
The increase in cases has come with a jump in the state's rate of positive cases, known as the positivity rate, which in recent weeks had been at record lows. For the seven-day period ending July 8, the state averaged 333 new cases daily. As of Monday, that had grown to 460 new cases per day. The state's positivity rate over the past week is 3.7%, up more than a point from lows earlier this summer. Polis attributed part of that increase to fewer COVID-19 tests being administered.
Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said the increases -- both in Colorado and nationwide -- were a "worrisome moment."
"(W)e are not making needed progress with vaccination," he said in an email. " ... Looking across the state, the range in the proportion vaccinated is telling and indicative of the public health challenge of achieving a sufficiently high rate of vaccination to quell the epidemic. Some counties are under 40% of eligible vaccinated — others are heading for 90%."
Both of the increasing COVID-19 metrics -- the averages of new daily cases and the testing positivity rate -- remain far below peak levels and would be below levels at any point during the pandemic, with the exception of some parts of last summer and early fall.
The more encouraging metric for public health officials is hospitalizations, which Samet said "have been at a plateau for several weeks."
As of Tuesday afternoon, when the data was last updated by the state, 298 residents are hospitalized with COVID-19, plus another 57 who are suspected to have the disease. That's a jump of 37 inpatients compared to Monday, but hospitalizations had otherwise stayed relatively flat for much of July.
"Colorado is admitting about 33 people per day with COVID-19 and that number has been holding steady for over a week," Beth Carlton of the Colorado School of Public Health said in an email to the Gazette. "The good news is that, as of right now, that number isn’t increasing. In other words, the amount of severe COVID in the state isn’t growing (that’s good). The bad news is that we are seeing double the amount of severe COVID this summer compared to last summer."
The delta variant, which is more contagious and leads to more hospitalizations than the standard strain of the disease, is driving that, she said. Polis said Wednesday that the variant, which first emerged in Mesa County and has played a starring role in the spike there, has become the dominant strain statewide.
Generally speaking, an increase in cases is usually followed a couple of weeks later by a jump in hospitalizations. But Carlton said that's not a guarantee this time.
"If we recognize that there is more work to be done to slow this virus, we could have a near normal fall," she said. "Schools are opening soon, people are heading back to work. The key to a normal fall is getting as many people vaccinated as possible and continuing to work to slow the spread of infections among unvaccinated through measures such as masking and testing."