Colorado’s COVID numbers are still high, but health officials see signs of a ‘potential turning point’ in the omicron wave

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A worried child buries his face in his mother’s arm while he gets his COVID-19 shot at a pop-up clinic Friday evening, December 3, 2021, in the community center of the Villages at Gateway Apartments in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. The event, organized by Soto, Conectores de Montbello and Kids in Need of Dentistry, provided gift bags to the first 60 kids vaccinated, as well as a visit with Santa Claus.

The record-high numbers of Coloradans infected with the omicron variant are starting to drop.

Colorado's percent of positive COVID-19 tests was nearly 30 percent last week. It’s now down to 26 percent, said state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.

“While we're starting to see improvements here and we believe we've turned a corner with the omicron surge, there continues to be high levels of transmission,” said Herlihy in an update with reporters on Thursday.

Hospitalizations seem to plateau, and ICU beds remain available

The state health department recorded 1,641 COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday. That number seems to have plateaued at fewer than 1,700 patients, about 200 less than the pandemic record.

Incident commander Scott Bookman said during the delta wave, intensive care bed availability got down to 75. During the omicron wave, it's stayed above 100.

“While our hospitals are still seeing a high demand, we do see promising numbers in our ICU capacity,” said Bookman, who described it as a potential pandemic turning point. “I think we have a tale of cautious optimism here, as we look at our numbers across the board.”

The state said there are 66 pediatric patients with coronavirus now hospitalized — all but five are unvaccinated or too young to be eligible.

A free mask giveaway has a shaky rollout

Bookman addressed both a new program to distribute face masks and emergency physicians calling on the state for help in addressing large patient volumes combined with persistent staffing shortages.

Gov. Jared Polis announced the new push to give free, medical-grade KN95 masks to the public for free at locations like libraries, fire stations and recreation centers on CPR’s Colorado Matters on Monday.

But the move seemed to blindside some locations, which seemed unaware of the new initiative. Multiple library systems said they did not have masks available to distribute or were not participating. Distribution did start Wednesday at some library systems, but others said they may delay the start of distribution.

Bookman said hundreds of thousands of masks have been shipped out to 272 locations that have opted in to the program. 

“We thank all Coloradans for their patience as we've rolled this program out,” he said. “We are moving as rapidly as we can to respond to the next set of needs in the pandemic.”

He urged people looking for masks to first check out participating locations on the state’s website.

The state of Colorado's emergency rooms

Bookman also responded to a call from a Colorado emergency physician’s group to activate the state’s crisis standards of care for hospitals, a far-reaching set of protocols to help hospitals manage a wave of patients.

Bookman said the state had been having ongoing conversations with the doctors throughout the pandemic. He said the state was working with the Colorado Hospital Association “to work to decompress hospitals that have areas of higher volume to areas of lower” volume. But he didn’t say the state was ready to activate the crisis standards, reiterating what the governor told CPR on Monday.

Emergency room physicians met last week with top leaders of the state’s pandemic response and the governor’s staff urging just that. The 700-strong Colorado chapter of The American College of Emergency Physicians followed that up with a letter to the governor’s office that put the crisis in bleak terms.

“As our health care system continues to struggle with multiple stressors on the system, we are at a breaking point,” the letter stated. “We are currently dealing with conditions that have never been seen before in our state.”

Bookman did do one thing the emergency physicians group asked:  He communicated to Coloradans that they shouldn’t go to emergency departments to get a COVID-19 test. It’s something doctors said they’ve been seeing, even though EDs are not providing tests to the general community.

“I do wanna stress to the public that it's important not to go to the emergency department for the sole purpose of being tested for COVID. Of course, if you're sick, you need to seek the appropriate emergency medical care,” Bookman said, adding there are 150 community testing sites available across the state.

“And those are really the places where people should be going to get their COVID tests, not the emergency room.”