DENVER – Colorado officials said Friday the state is in a fourth wave of the pandemic, with more than half of new cases being caused by variants of concern and with increasing case numbers and hospitalizations among people ages 18-50. But the state still plans to hand control of the dial system and restrictions over to local counties in a week.
Gov. Jared Polis said Friday that it is currently “a time of great concern” for Colorado, with multiple factors all reaching a head simultaneously.
As of Friday, about 1.2 million people were fully immunized in Colorado and nearly 2 million have received their first dose. A majority of the population of Coloradans age 50 and up have now been fully vaccinated and the state has opened up vaccine eligibility to everyone over age 16, with more vaccine supply expected in coming weeks.
Simultaneously, Colorado reported nearly 2,000 COVID-19 cases on Friday, including more than 1,500 new cases, 69 new hospitalizations, and a seven-day average positivity rate of 5.65%, which continues to climb. There were also 454 hospital beds in use by confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients.
The state will hand over local control of the COVID-19 dial system and business restrictions to counties in Colorado on April 16 as the state also sees variants of concern rise in numbers.
Polis and officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment stressed that they believe this will be the fourth and final wave of the pandemic, but said the severity of it would be left up to Coloradans and whether or not they can keep up with a few more weeks of wearing masks indoors and around others, not gathering with many others, and following the steps that have been drilled into the minds of residents here now for 14 months.
“It’s a little bit different,” Polis said of this current wave. He and CDPHE State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy explained that this wave is now affecting younger Coloradans ages 18-50 who have mostly been unable to sign up to be vaccinated until the past couple of weeks.
Since people ages 50 and up, and especially 70 and up, are much more likely to die of complications from COVID-19 and have been vaccinated in greater numbers than younger people, officials expect this wave to include fewer deaths and hospitalizations.
But they still warned that people of all ages can have deadly or severe, long-term outcomes caused by the virus, especially as more variants that are considered more transmissible and possibly more intense move through Colorado.
Herlihy said the state had now identified 12 cases of the P.1 variant currently ravaging Brazil in Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield and Denver counties. The CDPHE announced earlier this week two cases of that variant had been identified in Boulder County.
She said that scientists believe there were multiple introductions of the variant to Colorado, including one person who traveled internationally.
Colorado now has nearly 1,500 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which has been part of what has led to the sharp spike in cases and hospitalizations in Michigan and is now the most common variant found in the U.S.
There are two-dozen cases of the South African variant B.1.351 and nearly 500 cases of the California variant, called B.1.427 or B.1.429.
As such, Herlihy said, Coloradans who contract COVID-19 now are more likely than not to be infected with a variant strain.
She presented data which showed the effects of the vaccine on older populations versus the age groups that have been less likely to receive the vaccine until recently: Cases and hospitalizations among people ages 50 and up have become stagnant or are falling, while cases and hospitalizations among people 18-49 have been steadily climbing.
“That’s the good news here,” Herlihy said, adding that until cases among all age groups start declining, people will need to still follow the COVID-19 protection protocols.
Polis urged everyone to get vaccinated as quickly as possible and to live like they did in February and March in the meantime to try to reduce case and hospitalization numbers, which now include more younger people than in previous periods of the pandemic.
But this fourth wave is happening alongside the April 16 move to put the dial system in the hands of local governments, which Polis said Friday are “able to better adapt their resources” and communicate with the local population. He said the state would continue to work closely with the local governments to help tailor their plans, and he urged regional coordination.
Denver officials have said they are working with other counties in the metro area to develop a plan. The Tri-County Health Department said Friday it would likely have a definitive new public health order finalized by Friday night, while Jefferson County Public Health said it would have a plan out early next week.
The two latter health departments both said they would keep some restrictions in place at least into May.
“We have full confidence that our local public health agencies, cities and counties will continue to be the most effective messengers,” Polis said.
The governor added that he believes the end of the ski season will help lower numbers in Colorado counties with ski areas as the ski season winds down over the next couple of weeks at many resorts. But he said there was a greater concern about the increasing levels in the Denver metro area and Colorado Springs metro area.
“This wave is different than other waves. We have the most vulnerable Coloradans successfully protected. That means the ratio of deaths to incidence of disease will be lower. It does not mean that we’re not going to lose more Coloradans,” Polis said. “…And that’s the reason it’s important – if you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s important to wear your masks, be outdoors if you need to see others until you have the opportunity to get vaccinated. And please get vaccinated in the next few weeks.”