COVID-19: New Data Shows Normal May Be Further Off Than Hoped

Governor Jared Polis during an appearance on MSNBC last week.
MSNBC via YouTube
Governor Jared Polis during an appearance on MSNBC last week.
Optimism about life returning to normal after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been running high among Coloradans, thanks largely to the pace of vaccinations. But at a March 16 press conference about the novel coronavirus, Governor Jared Polis and other officials conceded that the latest data doesn't show signs of the decline that would be necessary to justify removing safety protocols.

Indeed, hospitalizations have actually gone up in recent days, case counts have apparently plateaued at a level higher than experts would like, and variants are growing rapidly — including one that had been merely categorized as "under investigation" but is now considered to be of significant concern.

The press conference took place more than twenty minutes late because Polis was spending time with Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who were in Colorado to promote the American Rescue Plan recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden. Polis stressed that one underappreciated aspect of the measure is additional money to support state vaccination and testing sites. He also noted plans for increased supplies of the medication over the coming weeks, which will allow the state to stock six new large-scale inoculation sites expected to be up and running across Colorado by the month's end.

But then Polis revealed that an additional thirteen people had been admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 today, bringing the total number of patients being treated at medical facilities for the disease to 341. The bump isn't alarming in and of itself, he said, but the number of hospitalizations is headed in the wrong direction. Moreover, case counts haven't experienced a major dip despite growing numbers of residents receiving at least their first dose of a vaccine. At present, approximately one in every 350 Coloradans is believed to be carrying the virus — better than the one-in-forty estimate from December, but not nearly as good as the one in 600 to 700 during the best days of summer 2020.

State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy and fellow epidemiologist Dr. Jon Samet, the Colorado School of Public Health's dean, elaborated on the risk factors related to this information.

According to Herlihy, the state currently estimates 336 cases of the U.K. variant; 225 cases of the California variant, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now sees as concerning; 11 cases of the South African variant, all of them tracked to the area in and around the Buena Vista Correctional Complex; and 4 cases of the New York City variant. Around 8 to 10 percent of specimens tested at the state lab consist of the U.K. variant, and 20 to 22 percent are the California version. Because all of the variants are more transmissible than the original strain, she said, their growing prevalence in Colorado means that the use of facial coverings in public and continued social distancing is of paramount importance until vaccination levels reach the herd-immunity stage. And while the percentage of inoculated people keeps rising, those required levels are still weeks or months away.

Samet then laid out projections for hospitalizations and deaths should Coloradans relax their adherence to safety measures. Right now, the state is considered to be at around 80 percent compliance. If that slips to 60 percent, Samet said, as many as 700 more unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 could occur between now and the first of June — and if more dangerous variants become the dominant strain, that fatality total could exceed 1,000 preventable deaths.

Despite these warning signs, Polis didn't announce any major rollbacks in his plan to phase out the state's dial dashboard and begin deferring to counties in regard to health measures; more information about that will likely be announced next week. But in the meantime, he said that facial coverings and other safeguards will likely remain necessary for weeks or months to come.

"Thank you for wearing a mask, social distancing and getting the vaccine when it's your turn," Polis concluded. "Together we'll get through this soon, over the next few months, and rebuild stronger than ever."