Why COVID in Colorado Has Been Deadlier in 2021 Than in 2020

Governor Jared Polis signing for the first shipment of vaccines to arrive in Colorado circa December 2020.
Governor Jared Polis signing for the first shipment of vaccines to arrive in Colorado circa December 2020.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment just confirmed that more than 10,000 people in the state have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. In statistics shared on December 14, the CDPHE revealed that the disease has caused the deaths of 10,018 individuals here, adding to a national toll that's now surpassed 800,000 lives lost.

But that's only part of the story. Most of the state's COVID fatalities, as well as the majority of infections and hospitalizations, have taken place in 2021, the pandemic's second year.

Our COVID-19 update for January 3, 2021, counted 341,250 cases, 18,713 hospitalizations and 3,907 deaths resulting from COVID-19 since March 2020. Compare those with the December 14 totals: 860,004 cases, 49,025 hospitalizations and 10,018 deaths. Between the start of the year and today, the state has recorded 518,754 cases, 30,312 hospitalizations and 6,111 deaths — far more than for each category in 2020.

At this time last year, officials were optimistic that the COVID-19 pandemic would end in the new year. After all, emergency use of vaccines designed to combat the disease had already won federal approval, and on December 14, 2020, Governor Jared Polis signed up to accept the first doses. Even before doing so, Polis had already announced a detailed plan to roll out immunizations quickly over the weeks and months to come, with health-care professionals and front-line workers prioritized.

The process was a bit bumpy at times, but overall, distribution went well, and by springtime, access to vaccination was opened up to the general public (by now, over 4 million Coloradans have been vaccinated). But the initial rush to get shots was followed by the realization that a significant portion of the populace — approximately 20 percent — had no intention of getting dosed, for a variety of reasons: hesitancy, misinformation, misguided notions of "freedom" and more.

This recalcitrance has had enormous repercussions. As time wore on, mutations such as the Delta and Omicron variants arose, and breakthrough cases for vaccinated individuals began to rise.

As the numbers continued to grow, Polis and CDPHE lead epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy used regular updates about the fight against COVID-19 to decry what they dubbed "a pandemic of the unvaccinated." The stats bear out this argument: As of December 14, 1,072 unvaccinated people are hospitalized for COVID treatment, while just 198 people receiving such care were already inoculated.

That means that 84 percent of those currently hospitalized have not been vaccinated, and the percentage has been similar for months, much to Polis's dismay. The governor has repeatedly argued that if 90-95 percent of Coloradans were vaccinated, only a couple hundred people would be hospitalized for COVID, and the disease would have long since shifted from the pandemic to the endemic stage.

Instead, Colorado is still seeing COVID deaths in the dozens every 24 hours; 302 people died from the disease in the seven days through December 13, an increase of nearly a third over the previous week. 
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts