DENVER – The omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is now widespread across Colorado and makes up nearly half of all new infections in the state, according to state health officials.
The variant, which is likely spreading at a faster rate in mountain communities and across the Denver metro area, now accounts for nearly 50% of all new infections detected through PCR testing done by the state as of Dec. 17, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.
Explaining the findings during a Wednesday news conference, Herlihy said the data showed there’s been a really rapid increase in the proportion of positive PCR tests that have been identified with the signature profile associated with the omicron variant, called the S gene target failure, or SGTF.
“We could infer from this that potentially half of what we’re seeing in the state – at least as of a couple of days ago – is potentially the omicron variant,” Herlihy said. “At this point, we do believe that omicron is widespread across the state and there is likely transmission occurring in many of our communities, if not most of our communities now.”
Colorado has also identified key signatures of omicron in all 21 of the wastewater systems participating in detection, Herlihy said.
While there’s still much to learn, she said it is becoming clear by the data available from South Africa and some European countries that the omicron variant appears to be more transmissible than previous strains of SARS-CoV-2. Data also shows there’s twice as much risk of a close contact becoming infected with omicron compared to the delta variant.
Herlihy also said that even though state data pointed to omicron being more capable of evading vaccine-induced immunity leading to breakthrough infections, two doses of an mRNA vaccine still offered high levels of protection against severe disease, but a third dose offered the highest level of protection both against infection and severe disease.
Data continues to be mixed on severity, which makes it nearly impossible to model how the state will fare when it comes to hospitalizations in the coming weeks, as data on severity is one of the key metrics needed to make projections, Herlihy said.
Though hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to decrease, there were still 1,026 people hospitalized for COVID-19, according to the latest data.
“We’re really grateful that we’re seeing this as we prepare for what may be coming with omicron,” said Scott Bookman, the CDPHE’s COVID-19 incident commander.
But while COVID hospitalizations are going down and there’s a little bit more bed capacity available, he said “there’s still a thousand people hospitalized with COVID today. That is a lot of additional patients in there."
State health officials continue to stress the importance of getting tested, especially if you’re planning to travel over the holidays to gather with family members you haven't seen in a while. Current CDC guidance states vaccinated people should get tested five to seven days after their last known exposure and quarantine for ten days if they test positive or show symptoms associated with COVID-19.
Data modeling from Elbert County Public Health earlier this week showed Colorado’s mountain communities, including Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Lake, Gunnison, Chaffee, La Plata, Archuleta, San Miguel, San Juan, Ouray, Clear Creek, Grand, Routt and Garfield counties, could be among the first to experience what the director of that county's public health department called “challenges related to Omicron.”
On Wednesday, Summit County public health officials said the omicron variant is likely already causing a surge in that area, as the number of cases has doubled in volume from Friday of last week.
In Eagle County, health officials reported the case count was previously hovering at about 300 cases per 100,000 people, but as of Dec. 22, that number was reported at over 1,000 cases per 100,000. The Board of Health there reinstated a countywide mask mandate indoors regardless of vaccination status that is now in effect.
Herlihy urged Coloradans – regardless of vaccination status – to continue practicing mitigation strategies that have been in place since the pandemic begin to curb the spread of omicron, including the wearing of high-quality masks while indoors, getting tested for COVID-19, avoiding large gatherings, social distancing, ventilating indoor environments as much as possible, and isolating and staying home if showing symptoms.