DENVER – Hospital capacity across Denver is now “razor thin” and things could get worse if those working on the frontlines of the pandemic start getting sick as the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus continues to spread unchecked, hospital leaders warned Tuesday.
Hospitalizations, which had been declining steadily over the past couple of weeks following the surge from the state’s fifth wave, are climbing again in Denver, with the city reporting about 150 people hospitalized for the disease as of Tuesday – a 34% increase over last week.
“We’ve seen a sharp uptick in the last couple of days and if we stay at this trajectory, we also will have a record number of inpatients,” said Kathy Howell, the chief nursing officer for University of Colorado Hospital.
About 98% of the hospital system’s ICU beds are full and their acute care beds are well over capacity, Howell said, adding she’s concerned for what the omicron variant will do to an already exhausted workforce who is not only tired, but who is also now getting sick from COVID-19 due to the variant’s effectiveness at bypassing vaccine-induced protection.
“This is probably going to be the scariest point of the pandemic over the next month,” she said during a virtual news conference in which she was joined by other Denver area hospital leaders, along with Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) executive director Bob McDonald.
The dire warning came as Mayor Hancock said the city’s positivity rate is now at 25% – five times of what is recommended to get a handle on the spread of the disease. As of Tuesday, one in four Denverites were coming back positive after getting tested for the virus, he said.
Explaining that he could not emphasize the importance of getting your booster, Hancock urged Denverites to get them so as soon as people are eligible, as staying out of the hospital is the relief hospitals and frontline workers need right now to maintain capacity.
“Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff have been doing their job on the brink now for two years. They need a break,” Hancock said. “Through a simple act of getting vaccinated or getting our booster shot, we can help them get that break.”
Bob McDonald, the DDPHE executive order, also urged Denverites to get vaccinated if they hadn’t already and warned the variant of the new virus, due to its high transmissibility, will find those who are unvaccinated and potentially send them to the hospital.
“We have close to 1,000 unvaccinated people throughout Colorado that are in hospitals right now – many on ventilators – who thought they didn’t need to get vaccinated. They thought that their immune system was fine, they think they’re in great shape – and maybe they are – but that wasn’t enough to keep them from going to hospitals,” he said, adding less than half of patients in Denver hospitals are Denver residents.
He reminded everyone who tests positive – regardless of vaccination status – to stay home for five days and wear a mask for an additional five days if you’re symptom free. If you’ve exposed and have received your booster shot or are recently vaccinated, you’re asked to use a mask for ten days, test on day five and stay home and test for COVID-19 again if you develop symptoms. For unvaccinated people who’ve been exposed to the virus, you’re asked to stay home for five days, test on the fifth day, and if you develop symptoms, to test for COVID-19 and stay home.
“Finally, we just can’t say this enough,” McDonald said. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation right now about hospitals – many of which in Denver are at capacity; they’re tapped out. They don’t have any beds available left. We wouldn’t be having conversation if everyone was getting vaccinated.”
Dr. Connie Price, the chief medical officer of Denver Health Medical Center, said Tuesday that omicron now accounts for most infections throughout the City of Denver, and said she was growing concerned due to the number of health care workers who were out sick – more so now than any previous week during the pandemic.
“I think we are in for a tough two-to-three weeks,” Price said, as the omicron surge is just now beginning in Colorado. “We are working together to make sure we can take care of the community. It’s a challenge to do so with depleted staff.”
It’s not just at hospitals where the Denver metro is experiencing a reduction in staff due to the omicron variant, according to Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of the Tri-County Health Department.
Health care workers getting sick with COVID-19 is also having an impact at community testing sites, which are getting inundated with people trying to get tests as they come back from the holidays and get their kids ready to return for the spring semester.
“I think we can expect that we’re going to continue to see difficulty getting the rapid tests. They are in short supply nationwide and I don’t think we’ll be getting any, any time soon,” said Dr. Price. “That said, this is so predominant in the community. If you cannot get your hands on a rapid test and you feel symptoms of an illness or a cold, it’s best to stay home, assume you have COVID for your five-day period.”
When asked about the surge in omicron cases and the return to school, and whether that would mean a return to remote learning, McDonald dismissed the idea and said health officials at DDPHE were doing everything they could to not disrupt the school learning process.
“Face coverings and vaccines do that,” McDonald said. “We’re not discussing any additional restrictions on schools and certainly not closures.”
From her part, Dr. Dawn Comstock, the executive director for Jefferson County Public Health, said she’s already talked with officials at Jeffco. Public Schools to have them prepare for potential school closures and a return to remote learning.
“Give omicron, it is very likely that schools may have to close because of staff shortages because of high rates of illness,” Dr. Comstock said, as she asked parents to not give school officials a hard time and abide by mask mandates so kids could stay in school.
“This is not politics, it’s public health,” Hancock said. “Get vaccinated, get boosted.”