Colorado public health and medical professionals expect a bump in already steadily increasing COVID-19 infections and related hospitalizations across the state after the Thanksgiving holiday and through the winter season.
But cases could be less severe than in past surges thanks to high immunity levels in the community, they said.
"We're going to see high numbers of people traveling, gathering for the holidays and having lots of joyful celebrations but in incredibly high-risk environments," said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth. "Everybody's going to be together in close proximity … which is also the prime way these viruses like to spread. We will see a surge (in COVID-19 infections) after the Thanksgiving holiday."
How large that increase will be and what the peak will be like is unclear, officials said Friday, encouraging residents to take preventive measures such as washing their hands, wearing masks, staying home when ill and getting vaccinated.
Immunity from previous COVID-19 infections or vaccinations could curb the severity of cases and the number of hospitalizations this winter, said Dr. Michael Roshon, an emergency physician at Penrose-St. Francis and vice president of physician residencies and research operations at Centura Health, the health care system that operates Penrose-St. Francis Health Services.
"We've seen a slight uptick in cases of people being hospitalized, but probably not as much as there is an increase in overall cases," he said. "As more people have immunity there's generally less severe disease and I think we're going to continue to see that, where cases will go up and down but hospitalizations will stay low."
Statewide, the rate of new cases over the past week was 130.6 per 100,000 residents as of Nov. 16, according to the latest data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That rate is up 18.5 cases from the previous week, data show, though still far smaller than the peaks of the past two winters.
The latest number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations is the highest in Colorado since late February.
On Nov. 16 there were 379 people with COVID hospitalized statewide, according to the latest data available from the state health department. That's the highest number since Feb. 23, when 415 people were hospitalized for coronavirus, data show.
El Paso County had an increase in cases in late spring and early summer, but numbers trended downward through August and September, said Haley Zachary, El Paso County Public Health's communicable disease program manager. Local COVID-19 cases increased gradually again in late October and November as the respiratory season started, she said.
El Paso County Public Health data as of Monday show there have been 1,547 cases over the last 14 days — an increase of 123 cases compared to the previous 14-day period. During the last two weeks 79 people have also been hospitalized with COVID.
El Paso County Public Health Co-Medical Director Dr. Bernadette Albanese said Friday it's likely the number of cases is underreported, however, as more people use rapid at-home tests.
Still, rapid tests give people a convenient way to "quickly test themselves and make informed and real-time decisions about their actions," she said.
Barron and Roshon said both UCHealth and Centura were seeing more hospitalizations among people with comorbidities or who are immunocompromised, as well as elderly patients.
As of Friday, UCHealth's four hospitals in the Pikes Peak region had more than 30 people hospitalized who were positive for COVID, said spokeswoman Cary Vogrin. Oct. 12 was the last time UCHealth's regional hospitals had fewer than 10 patients who were positive for COVID-19, she said.
There were about 24 patients on Friday who were hospitalized with COVID-19 at Penrose St.-Francis and Centura hospitals in El Paso and Fremont counties, Roshon said. There were no patients in the health system's hospitals with COVID-19 in Pueblo County, he said.
"One of the things we are continuing to see is people get admitted with COVID, but not hospitalized because of COVID," he said, meaning patients were seeking treatment with Centura Health for other medical concerns and ended up testing positive for coronavirus.
Pueblo County is seeing high COVID-19 transmission but medium community levels, according to data on the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment website. As of Nov. 14, the community had 258 new COVID-19 cases over the last week per 100,000 residents, the latest data available show.
According to COVID-19 hospitalization data in Pueblo County as of Nov. 6, the most recent date for which information was available, there were 27 hospitalizations per week in the Parkview Health System. There were zero hospitalizations per week at St. Mary Corwin Medical Center as of Oct. 30, the most recent date where data is available.
In Teller County, there were about 7.6 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last week as of Thursday, according to data available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked on the Teller County Public Health and Environment website.
In Fremont County, there were 87 new COVID-19 cases, including five probable cases, as of Nov. 9, the most recent date where data is available, according to Fremont County Public Health and Environment's website.
People staying indoors and new, more transmissible omicron variants are likely the cause of the recent uptick in coronavirus cases in Colorado, a state health department spokeswoman said Friday.
But health professionals are encouraged that those variants, like BQ.1.1., don't seem to cause more severe infections, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said during a media briefing Monday.
"It doesn't look like we're seeing any evidence that there is an increase in severity," she said.
Monocolonal antibodies are no longer effective against new omicron variants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, Barron and Roshon said. Other treatments, like Paxlovid, are still highly effective but need to be taken early on, they said.
Among other preventive measures, getting vaccinated against coronavirus and getting updated booster shots is the best course of prevention, Barron and Roshon said.
People who received booster shots are four-and-a-half times less likely to be hospitalized for a COVID-19 infection than those who are unvaccinated, Herlihy said.
"As we go into the winter holidays there is so much fun that people want to have. Why ruin it by being home sick?" Barron said. "Simple things do make a difference."