Colorado just recorded its lowest number of COVID hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Olivia Pluss, at the CU School of Public Health, places a student’s nose swab into a vial of COVID testing solution on Tuesday Feb. 1, 2022, in the cafeteria of Aurora Science and Technology Middle School.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Colorado are now at their lowest level since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“With the current variants, COVID-19 is mostly an outpatient disease for most adults,” said Dr. Anuj Mehta, a pulmonary care physician at Denver Health, and member of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce.

But he said patients with weak immune systems and the elderly continue to be at risk and need to be vigilant about decreasing their risk. 

As of Wednesday, June 14, there are 64 people hospitalized with confirmed cases. That's the lowest number since the crisis began more than three years ago. And it's just a fraction of the peak of the 1,847 patients hospitalized with the virus on Dec. 1, 2020. 

Almost exactly two years ago, when vaccines were available and working well, the spring saw a steady decline in cases. UC Berkeley's Dr. John Swartzberg then, “thought we might be talking about the end game of the pandemic.”

Tragically, something even worse was right around the corner, the Delta and then Omicron variants.

“Will this be our fate again? Perhaps, but I feel more optimistic,” said Swatzberg, a clinical professor emeritus and expert in infectious diseases, via email.

The state has seen COVID-19 hospitalizations decreasing for many months, “so it is not surprising,” Mehta said, that the state is now at an all-time low.

But he voiced caution, saying hospitals are still coping with the long-term consequences of the crisis, including financial ones.

“It does not mean hospitals are out of the woods,” Mehta said. “Hospitals continue to struggle with staffing issues resulting in hospitals being very full and very busy.” 

What's caused the decline? Vaccinations, prior infections, better treatments, milder variants

Vaccinations, plus immunity from prior infections, along with milder variants, as well as improved treatments and understanding of the disease, are all thought to have contributed to the trend.

“While the current vaccines do not completely prevent COVID-19, they remain incredibly effective at keeping people out of the hospital,” Mehta said.

“The low hospitalization likely is a reflection of sustained community immunity and again, in general, less severe infection,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, an infectious disease expert at UCHealth via email.

Swartzberg also credited “a strong immunity wall,” noting nearly 95 percent of the American population has immunity from vaccination or infection(s) or both. “Omicron and its subvariants are very contagious but less virulent.”

The variants that are currently circulating tend to cause mild illness and are not making people as sick as earlier in the crisis, Barron said.

So, what’s the outlook for the next phase of the pandemic?

It’s unclear, and no one wants to make big predictions, said all three doctors.

“The forecast remains a bit unpredictable right now,’ said Barron. 

The Southern Hemisphere, often a reliable predictor, is set to go into its winter months. 

“I am watching the numbers in Australia to see if COVID-19 resurges along with flu,” she said.

The key to sustaining low hospitalizations is to have a circulating strain of COVID-19 that causes mild infections, she said.

“Unfortunately, our surveillance in the U.S. and worldwide has dramatically dropped off in the last few months,” said Swartzberg. “We can only know what we can see and we’re not looking very hard.”

Mehta also worries about the coming fall and winter bringing a combination of respiratory viruses like COVID-19, RSV, and influenza.

“We typically see infections increase for all respiratory viruses (in those seasons), and that may translate to more hospitalizations even without new variants,” he said. 

“If we get a new variant, more similar to the Delta variant, which caused severe infections and was very highly transmissible, then we might see a shift in the numbers,” Barron said.