Virus Outbreak Colorado

A man checks in for a COVID-19 booster shot at a pharmacy in a grocery store Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, in downtown Denver. 

On Friday, some of Colorado's top health officials gathered - virtually - to mark the two-year anniversary of the novel coronavirus's arrival here and to further signal that the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is something more than an optical illusion.

With high levels of immunity, the omicron wave fully receding and COVID-19 metrics down to summer 2021 lows, the risk of infection when you walk out your door "is quite low," state medical officer Eric France told reporters. The state had doled out millions of tests, vaccine doses, masks. So many people had been infected and vaccinated that, barring the arrival of a new COVID-19 strain, Colorado should be in for a quiet few months. 

Those leaders had gathered and taken stock exactly a year ago, too, on March 4, 2021. Back then, with the new vaccine soon to be available to every adult in the state, optimism began to poke through. The head of the state health department, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, talked about the arrival of hope and the "light at the end of this tunnel." In a separate event, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that Denver's city-county building would be illuminated in part to "acknowledge that the light at the end of this long tunnel keeps getting brighter and brighter every day."

The delta variant would arrive in force in Colorado by the mid-summer, only to be overtaken by the omicron strain in December, and cases would increase, with a few weeks of reprieve, almost ceaselessly in Colorado from July through mid-January. Nearly half of the state's COVID-19 deaths would come during that stretch.

Colorado identified its first two cases of COVID-19 - a Summit County man Douglas County woman - on March 5, 2020. Eight days later, the state would have its first death: an El Paso County woman, one of several deaths linked to a bridge club in Colorado Springs. 

In the two years that have followed, more than 1.3 million cases have been reported to the state Department of Public Health and Environment, a number that's roughly tripled in the past year alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that just under 38% of Colorado - more than 2 million people - has been infected with the virus since the pandemic began.

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After that first death was reported March 13, 2020, at least 12,555 more Coloradans have died from the virus. More than half died after the first anniversary 12 months ago.

On Friday, Hunsaker Ryan took stock. After delta and omicron sent hospitalizations and cases surging, they've now dropped to their lowest levels since the summer. The positivity rate is below 5% again, after it nearly touched 30% in January. So many people have been vaccinated or were infected during omicron - tens of thousands more than were detected by state-reported testing - that state experts project that 90% of Coloradans are immune to omicron right now.

The state has doled out more than 2.5 million at-home test kits. More than 150 public testing sites have been established in the past two years, and more than 18 million test results have been reported. More than 10 million vaccine doses have been administered by nearly 2,000 vaccine providers. Colorado has the 10th-lowest death rate and the 11th-highest booster dose rate.

"It has been two very long years," said Scott Bookman, Colorado's COVID-19 incident commander. "But Coloradans have come together to allow us to move forward, and we're at a point now where disease rates are low and getting lower by the day. We have high immunity from vaccination. So we are at a point where we can begin to look forward to our next step."

Bookman said those "two very long years" had helped prepare Colorado for whatever the virus would bring from here on out, and he stressed that it "is going to be with us for the foreseeable future." He and Ryan said that the state was ready to surge again, should a fall or winter wave come in several months, as it did in 2020 and 2021. 

Asked what makes this anniversary different from last year's, Ryan ticked off omicron's lower level of severity; high rates of vaccination; and the increasing availability of antiviral medications. Those factors, plus warmer weather, "have all converged right now to put us in the best position we ever have been in with this virus."

Health reporter

Seth Klamann is the health reporter for the Gazette, focused on COVID-19, public health and substance use. He's a Kansas City native and a University of Missouri alum, with stops in Wyoming, Omaha and Milwaukee before moving to Denver.