Colorado will see a rise in COVID cases, but not the heights of previous waves, according to modeling

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

Key metrics tracking the coronavirus in Colorado are all rising — but at levels far below major waves of illness.

New statewide modeling projects the upticking trend to continue. But the peak is expected to be considerably lower than previous peaks, state health officials told reporters in a remote news conference.

“The cases we're seeing right now are incredibly low compared to previous times. Hospitalizations, record low, compared to previous times in the pandemic,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist. “So while we are seeing these increases, our hope is certainly that what we're going to experience in the next couple of weeks is not going to be like we experienced in previous surges.”

Other medical experts in Colorado said the metrics are in line with expectations.

“The latest numbers are all within what we expected. Now that many people are either not testing or testing at home, meaning those cases are not reported, we are even more focused on the number of hospitalized patients,” said Dr. Richard Zane, the director of emergency services at UCHealth. “Those low numbers of hospitalized patients are reassuring and well within expectations.” 

Zane said his take is that Colorado’s mitigation strategy has worked and continues to work, but that people need to make good decisions based on their risks. 

“Overall, I am not concerned. I would very strongly encourage people to get vaccinated and/or boosted, for those who are sick with COVID and over 65 or have comorbidities to request therapy (mAb or antivirals), and for those with significant comorbidities or who live with at-risk individuals to consider wearing masks in high-risk situations,” Zane said. 

Tracking the numbers

Colorado's COVID-19 test positivity rate has risen above 5 percent for the first time in weeks. 

On Thursday, it hit 5.15 percent, above the 5 percent level that sets off alarms for infectious disease experts. That's the highest number recorded since mid-February and double what it was a month ago. It signals growing transmission of the coronavirus in Colorado. 

Cases too are hitting levels not seen since mid-February. The numbers likely don't include most rapid home tests. 

Fewer than 100 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the state dashboard. 

The state health department, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Colorado School of Public Health released an updated statewide modeling report. It estimates about one in 375 Coloradans is currently infected with SARS-CoV-2. 

Variants dominating are the cases

That number is strikingly low compared to earlier in the pandemic. But the state is experiencing a slight increase in COVID-19 cases due to the increasing prevalence of BA.2 subvariants. The BA.2 subvariant has become dominant in the U.S. and Colorado, driving infections that are being picked up in test positivity data, as well as detection in wastewater samples in recent weeks.

“Infections are likely increasing in Colorado. This is based on wastewater surveillance, percent positivity and the recent uptick in COVID-19 hospital demand. The good news, infections and severe disease have been low over the last month – and severe disease is still very low state-wide,” said said Elizabeth Carlton, an associate professor for the school at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and member of the Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Team that provides epidemiological modeling for the state. 

“That said, it’s a good reminder that SARS-CoV-2 is still circulating in our communities. It’s important to stay up to date on vaccines and use masking to protect high-risk populations (e.g., health-care settings). If numbers continue to grow, we may see changes in masking recommendations,” she said.

Herlihy said BA.2 may cause an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the next three months, though the peak is expected to be considerably lower than prior peaks.  

She said she’s watching trends on the East Coast, often a precursor to elsewhere in the country, where they are “starting to see some stabilization in their case rates.”

She said state public health officials believe many Coloradan are protected from a surge of severe illness because of vaccinations and previous infections. 

Based on the latest trends, “Colorado is going in the wrong direction,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus and expert in infectious diseases at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Still, things are not ominous.”

He said the responsible thing for the government to do is to “make certain the populace knows that the pandemic is not over, that there is a considerable amount of virus circulating, and that people need to remain vigilant.”

Getting vaccinated (including boosters) is still important

More than 13-thousand people have died from COVID over the course of the pandemic.

The health department said, in a statement, the best protection against all variants of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated with all recommended doses of the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine. Anyone, regardless of vaccine status, who experiences symptoms should get tested immediately and isolate while waiting for test results.

“It is still important to get vaccinated and get a booster. There are now reports that show that you can be re-infected with the BA.2 variant even if you had omicron,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, an infectious disease expert at UCHealth. “Vaccination still is very effective and helps keep you from getting severely ill or ending up in the hospital. The CDC and FDA now recommend a 2nd booster shot for people age 50 or older and those who have a weakened immune system.”

The state modeling team includes scientists at ColoradoSPH and the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, as well as experts from the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Colorado Denver, and Colorado State University.