COVID-19 Infections Are Now Threatening Colorado’s Hospital Capacity

A negative pressure room inside St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A negative pressure room inside St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.

Hospital capacity in Colorado is now at risk of being breached by a surge of COVID-19 infections, state health officials said Friday.

“Cannot stress enough. The state that our hospitals are currently in today, the stress that they are feeling, the impact that this wave is having on them,” said Scott Bookman, the COVID-19 Incident Commander with the state health department. 

Though more people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in January, available critical care beds have now fallen below 200 for the first time during the crisis, Bookman said. Many people have returned to their normal lives, so now hospitals are dealing with the virus at the same time they are seeing a larger number of patients seeking treatment for routine health issues. 

“The difference between this wave and all past waves is that Coloradans have returned to their normal lives,” Bookman said. “Those who have been vaccinated have been given the opportunity to go out and live their lives. What comes with that is additional cases of trauma, additional heart attacks, additional strokes. We have seen people who have delayed receiving care over the course of their pandemic because they were afraid to go to their doctor. And this is all coming together with the increase in COVID hospitalizations.”

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

The state recorded 894 people hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday, the most since January 7, when cases were receding from a high of nearly 2,000 a month earlier. 

Bookman said many hospitals are opening up additional ICU beds, canceling scheduled surgeries and moving clinic staff to beef up hospital staffing levels. Hospitals and frontline providers are under intense stress and most coronavirus patients are unvaccinated, he said. "The burden of the unvaccinated on our hospitals is profound, and it impacts all Coloradans." 

He thanked frontline healthcare workers for “tirelessly” caring for Coloradans. 

“The stress and overwhelm they have felt, the burden of this pandemic, has been remarkable.” Bookman also stressed, “the absolute importance of getting vaccinated to end this pandemic.”

More younger Coloradans are in the hospital with COVID-19 now that the school year has started

Bookman’s dire warning came as the state shared other worrisome news. With schools back in session, case numbers and outbreaks are rising in younger Coloradans.

“We continue to see the highest rates of disease occurring in our school-aged children,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s epidemiologist.

Children’s Hospital Colorado says it has seen an increase in pediatric patients in recent weeks. In the week of Sept. 5, children and teens made up 4.05 percent of growing hospital admissions, the highest percentage since July, according to the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

Those under the age of 19 made up 27 percent of all the state’s COVID-19 cases in the week of Aug. 29. That’s the highest mark during the pandemic, but only narrowly exceeds the 26.91 percent of cases the same age group made up in the week of Sept. 20 a year ago, as some schools returned to in-person classes, with vaccines not yet available to students 12 and older as they are now.

But then, there also wasn’t a highly transmissible delta variant increasing the caseloads across the board. In the week of Sept. 20 last year, 1,190 kids and teens caught COVID-19. In the week of Aug. 29 this year, that same percentage represented 3,603 cases. That was more than double the 1,512 cases among children and teens aged 0-19 in the week of Aug. 8 before most schools re-opened for the new school year.

Source: CDPHE

Colorado’s case rate is currently better than the nation’s and is in the best third of states, Herlihy said.

But Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged that with the delta variant driving yet another national surge in hospitalizations and deaths, that bar is currently pretty low.

“We continue to have a very high level of COVID-19 across the entire United States, including in Colorado,” he said. “It's smart to be careful. It's smart to limit large activities with a lot of others, especially indoors.”

Polis resists school mask mandate and other new restrictions

Health officials continue to believe that vaccination is the fastest way out of the pandemic, but while 75 percent of eligible Coloradans have now received at least one dose of vaccine, that leaves about two million potential hosts for the coronavirus who remain unprotected either by choice or lack of eligibility. Each new infection is an opportunity for the virus to mutate further, perhaps one day beyond the reach of current vaccines.

At numerous points during the pandemic, Polis has said his “North Star” is protecting hospital capacity and vulnerable Coloradans. But for now he appears to be gambling that residents will respond to the worsening situation without the need for state mandates.

When pressed by reporters on whether now is the time to establish statewide mask requirements in schools, which are filled with hundreds of thousands of students not yet eligible for the vaccine, Polis signaled he’s not ready to do it. It’s a position he’s held for weeks now, even with public health experts warning about the potential danger in schools not only to children, but to communities as the virus spreads from students to families and back.

Polis said that, while "it should ring alarm bells" that the count of available ICU beds has fallen to 197, the state's hospitals have not yet reached capacity. “We do have ICU beds available. We do have a higher vaccination rate than many of the states that are suffering from overwhelming of their hospitals,” he added.

Polis said his team is watching the numbers on a daily basis.

 “It looks like hopefully the rates have stabilized,” he said. “But certainly we'll continue to keep that North Star in mind.” 

Later in the news conference, another reporter circled back: with school outbreaks doubling week over week and high rates in children, she asked, do you still feel like the local control approach is working?

In the absence of statewide requirements, the battle has played out at the local level. Some districts have enacted requirements for students and staff to wear masks, which research has shown limits spread of the highly contagious virus. But elsewhere, most notably in Douglas County, the tension has helped spark the likely break-up of one of the state’s largest local public health departments, Tri-County Health.

Rather than answering, Polis pointed out that at least he hasn’t banned counties or school districts from issuing their own mask mandates like some Republican governors have done.

“In our state, we want to empower and equip our superintendents, our county health, and in consultation with the county health, to really have the tools they need to retain in-person education in a way that works in each community,” Polis said. 

Polis noted that some schools have had to go into quarantine to prevent further outbreak and stressed his administration would work with local leaders to make schools safe. 

“We plan on continuing to work, to empower our superintendents, to have the tools they need to provide safe in class education, including the tool we've made available of universal testing for kids,” Polis said. 

Asked if that essentially meant there’s no plan for new mask requirements for schools, Polis again stressed the value of increased testing and said the state would be providing new guidance about another tool, “the beneficial impact of ventilation,” which experts in aerosols have called critical to preventing spread in schools.

Later, another reporter asked Polis if it makes more sense to issue a statewide school mask mandate now before hospital capacity is breached. The governor repeated what he’d before, saying that many schools are already requiring masks, that unlike other governors he has not prohibited schools from doing so.

At Friday’s update, journalists also asked about how Colorado would implement and enforce new national measures announced by President Biden Thursday. Polis said the state was awaiting the specifics. “We're still waiting for details on a lot of that and guidance on a lot of that,” he said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify a quote from Gov. Jared Polis.