Year in Review: The Ten Biggest COVID-19 Stories of 2021

Year in Review: The Ten Biggest COVID-19 Stories of 2021 (2)
Getty Images/Westword Illustration
This was supposed to be the year when the COVID-19 pandemic would end. Thanks to the rollout of vaccines said to be more than 90 percent effective, optimism was running high at the start of 2021 in Colorado and beyond. But while case and hospitalization counts initially tumbled as the number of immunized Coloradans grew, the rise of new variants reversed this progress and thrust the state back into a new phase of the crisis.

Now, on the cusp of 2022, not even health-care experts seem to know what's going to happen next. But we can see what we've come through on this crazy journey: Here are the ten biggest pandemic benchmarks over the past year, in chronological order and accompanied by links to our original coverage.

January 4: COVID-19 data in December 2020 eased from the previous month's peaks, prompting Governor Jared Polis to move Level Red counties on the state's COVID-19 dial dashboard to Level Orange. Among other things, the decision again allowed limited indoor dining at restaurants in places where it had previously been nixed. These moves prefigured the decision in early February to let restaurants in communities such as Denver double capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent.

March 19: The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced impending changes to the state's dial dashboard, dubbed Dial 3.0, that resulted in further easing of COVID-19 restrictions for many counties across the state. But rising case counts linked to variants of the disease represented storm clouds on the horizon.

May 14: Promising data related to the effectiveness of vaccines inspired the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine that people who'd been immunized could start going into public indoor spaces without masks. Governor Polis wasted no time cosigning this advice, despite indications of ongoing spread, including a new record for outbreaks at K-12 schools in a single week.

June 22:  A viral mutation known as the Delta variant began circulating in places such as Mesa County, on Colorado's Western Slope; by the second half of June, Colorado had the second-most cases in the country of the more transmissible and dangerous strain. The Delta variant would quickly supersede the original virus and dominate new infections statewide.

July 20: With the Delta variant running rampant, state officials advised schools to require masking indoors for unvaccinated individuals over the age of two for the 2021-2022 school year. But the ultimate decision was left to local authorities, and in Mesa County, which at the time had by far the most confirmed Delta variant cases in the state, the local school district determined that face coverings wouldn't be required for anyone, vaccinated or not. Days later, the CDC reversed course and renewed its recommendation that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should start wearing masks again inside public places. But Polis didn't revive the statewide mask mandate, allowing individuals to decide if they should cover their face or not.

August 17: The combination of the Delta variant and lagging vaccinations — promotions such as $1 million drawings and $100 Walmart gift card giveaways saw only modest success — sparked a significant COVID-19 comeback. By mid-August, hospitalizations for the disease were at their highest point since January.

September 22: A significant number of parents in districts statewide objected to their kids being required to wear masks in classrooms, and their antipathy for such safety measures soon wound up in court. For instance, Jefferson County Public Health's lawsuit against three Christian schools that had repeatedly defied orders related to indoor mask use eventually led to agreements with two of the institutions and a temporary restraining order against the third.

October 12: CDPHE statistics confirmed that hospital admissions had hit heights not seen since the previous year. The 178 new patients admitted in Colorado for COVID-19 on October 12 date were the most since 187 on December 26, 2020. And the 1,045 people hospitalized for the disease was the highest number since 1,086 n December 31. Both metrics would get worse over the weeks that followed, and the availability of ICU beds would shrink to well below 100 statewide.
click to enlarge Aurora mayor Mike Coffman and Governor Jared Polis discuss the omicron variant. - COLORADO.GOV
Aurora mayor Mike Coffman and Governor Jared Polis discuss the omicron variant.
November 23: Mayor Michael Hancock and public-health officials representing several metro area counties (with the glaring exception of Douglas County) announced what was shorthanded as a mask-and-vax mandate to fight COVID-19. The rule, designed to go into effect the next day in Denver, Jefferson, Adams and Arapahoe counties, called for face coverings to be worn in public indoor settings unless the business or venue in question has made arrangements with their particular county to check a patron's vaccine status before allowing entry. Jefferson County Public Health Director Dr. Dawn Comstock said the actions were justified in the absence of a statewide order. "When there are no state orders to protect the people of Colorado," she said, "it becomes crucial for us to work together to have orders that are consistent and uniform wherever possible to create a safer area."

December 14: Updated CDPHE figures revealed that 10,018 people in Colorado had lost their lives due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, state health officials were trying to grapple with the new Omicron variant, which had been identified in Colorado on December 2. Polis and Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado's lead epidemiologist, characterized the ongoing spread of the virus as a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," given that people who'd refused to get shots typically constituted more than 80 percent of those hospitalized. But increases in breakthrough cases for individuals who'd been inoculated made it clear that we're all in this together, for better or worse.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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