As the number of El Paso County residents testing positive rises, hospitals in the region will change from orange to orange-red on the COVID-19 data dashboard, El Paso County Public Health announced Sept. 16.
The positivity rate is 9.52 percent, an 18-percent rise in the last week. The goal when the pandemic first began to spread early last year was for the positivity rate to stand at 5 percent or less before opening the economy, softening mask protocols indoors and other measures.
The change came at the direction of the regional hospital and health care leadership based on trends seen in health systems.
Local hospitals have seen more than 150 COVID patients in the last week, Public Health said in a news release, the highest level since the beginning of the year when the winter surge was declining. The new spike is driven by the unvaccinated.
"This change indicates hospital capacity is strained and local hospitals are experiencing resource and staff limitations," the release said.
“UCHealth’s hospitals in the Pikes Peak region continue to see record numbers of patients needing care for COVID and other health conditions. This morning, our hospitals in the region were caring for 90 patients with COVID – a number not seen since early January,” Dr. David Steinbruner, chief medical officer for UCHealth Memorial, said in the release.
“This is extremely worrisome, considering we are also about to enter flu season. Unfortunately, COVID continues to be a hidden, silent pandemic that most people don’t see unless it impacts a family member or other loved one requiring hospitalization. But it is very real, and it’s taxing our hospitals and our staff. There are countless stories elsewhere in the nation of people not receiving the care they need because hospitals are overburdened by COVID cases. Across the country, COVID is impacting patients who need care for other urgent, life-threatening issues, such as stroke or heart failure. We don’t want it to get to that point in Colorado. I urge everyone: Please get a COVID vaccine and get a flu vaccine.”
Public Health's dashboard shows 31 outbreaks have been reported since Sept. 1, of a total of 57 reported since October 2020. Many have occurred in schools and assisted living centers.
“Across our county and Colorado, our hospitals have been extremely busy taking care of all who need our services. The continued rise in patients with COVID-19, ~90% of whom are unvaccinated, as well as other acute medical/surgical needs has challenged our resources," Dr. William Plauth, chief medical officer for Penrose Hospital and St. Francis Hospital said in the release. "As such, we have needed to hold patients on the medical floors. We have also begun postponing those surgeries that can reasonably wait."
Plauth noted "the vast majority" of COVID patients are unvaccinated. "We continue to encourage all in our communities to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccines are safe and effective and are the best way to avoid becoming infected with COVID-19 and spreading it to others,” he said.
A spokesperson for Children’s Hospital Colorado also expressed concern, notably as flu season is just beginning. "We anticipate many more kids requiring hospitalization, and we’re already feeling the impact of increased numbers. In addition to the prevalent respiratory infections, our emergency departments are seeing significant increases in children and youth experiencing mental health crises,” Dr. Mike DiStefano, southern region chief medical officer with Children's Hospital, said in the release.
Public Health Director Susan Wheelan urged people to get tested and vaccinated at one of the many sites available. "Please do everything you can to protect yourself, your loved ones, and the community’s health," she said, calling the vaccine a "superior prevention tool" to beat back the spread of the deadly virus.
So far, 61 percent of the county's residents have been fully vaccinated, which places the county near the bottom for vaccinate rates compared to the state's 10 most populous counties.
Regional hospital census is a key metric to monitor because it shows real-time data related to the volume of COVID-19 patients hospitals are seeing. The hospital capacity is mirroring other metrics used to monitor disease activity, with the seven-day incidence and positivity rates both among the highest since January 2021, the release said.
Public Health blamed the rising hospitalizations on people who are not vaccinated. They account for more than 85 percent of those requiring advanced care. Hospitalizations have also been trending younger compared to 2020. For the last 30 days, 30 percent of hospitalizations of El Paso County residents are age 39 or younger. For comparison over all time (since March 2020), that age group accounts for 20 percent of all hospitalizations.
Meantime, there's no indication local officials will impose restrictions, and El Paso County commissioners have previously said they have no plan to impose mask mandates. Gov. Jaren Polis months ago lifted state imposed restrictions, leaving the response to COVID to local authorities.
Hospitals in Idaho, where the vaccination rate is roughly 40 percent, one of the lowest in the nation, have started rationing care.
Also, schools are closing across the country as COVID spreads, endangering children under the age of 12 years old, who are not yet eligible to get the vaccine.