Mesa County fills all ICU beds as Weld County hospitals near capacity

1 in 49 Coloradans is contagious with COVID-19

Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas
Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas of Battlement Mesa spoke during a virtual press conference with Gov. Jared Polis on Nov. 20, 2020. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

Mesa County Public Health announced that all intensive care beds in area hospitals were occupied as of Nov. 18, fulfilling Colorado public health officials’ worst fear since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: that hospitals would become overwhelmed by coronavirus patients absent an ability to “flatten the curve” of new cases.

“All area hospitals will begin activating surge capacity to ensure additional rooms and beds are ready to use,” the announcement said. “This is possible due to a robust collaborative planning process that has been in place since the start of the pandemic.”

Weld County hospitals have just three intensive care beds unoccupied and no regular hospital beds available, Gov. Jared Polis said during a news briefing Nov. 20.

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Mesa County has reported 1,486 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks, and moved to the red level of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 dial system on Nov. 20. The county’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests is 12.5%, more than twice the upper limit of 5% recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure that testing is adequate and virus transmission is under control.

“Widespread community transmission has had an impact on long-term care facilities, the jail and our homeless population, often through staff who pick the virus up in the community,” Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health, said in a statement. “Hospital employees are being impacted too and if hospital staff are isolated due to illness, they’re not able to care for patients.”

“Everyone is at greater risk for contracting this disease across the board,” he added. “Each of our individual behaviors is ultimately leading to more hospitalizations and more deaths.”

COVID-19 dial
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment revised its dial system Nov. 20 to add a purple level to the right of the red level, raising the bar for a stay-at-home order. (CDPHE)

As of Nov. 18, 1,428 people were hospitalized in the state with confirmed cases of COVID-19, plus an additional 165 with suspected cases. Of the hospitals reporting data to CDPHE, 34% expect staff shortages and 14% expect intensive care bed shortages within the next week.

Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas of Battlement Mesa also spoke during Polis’ news briefing.

“Right now, we have many Coloradans depending on us,” he said of health care professionals. As many hospitals face an impending staffing shortage, Vargas said his message to colleagues was to “all do what we need in order to be there for the people that are honestly counting on us.”

An average of 4,750 new cases have been reported each day from Nov. 12 through Nov. 18.

“It’s rather shocking, but about 1 in every 49 Coloradans are contagious with coronavirus,” Polis said.

Exactly one month ago, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy told reporters that the state’s current trajectory would lead to hospitals becoming overwhelmed by late December.

“The story is better or worse depending on whether distancing increases or decreases between now and Thanksgiving,” Herlihy said.

At the time, just 417 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases.

Dial system map
This map shows dial levels by county in Colorado as of Nov. 20, 2020. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

“We have hospital beds available, and we have surge plans in place that will allow us to grow capacity and ensure safe, quality care to as many patients as need us,” Bryan Johnson, president of St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, said in Mesa County Public Health’s statement. “We all have a role to play in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Please be proactive and do your part to take the necessary precautions.”

Richard Salgueiro, the executive director of VA Western Colorado Health Care System, called on retired or displaced health care workers to step in to help treat patients.

“This is a call to arms,” he said in the statement.

More counties moving to red level

Weld County is still in the yellow level of the COVID-19 dial, but its test positivity rate of 16.5% is higher than Mesa County’s. The county has seen 1,118 new cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.

Weld County will move two levels at once, skipping over the orange level and entering the red level on Nov. 22, according to CDPHE.

In addition to Weld County and the 15 counties that moved to the red level on Nov. 20, CDPHE ordered four additional counties to implement red-level restrictions by Nov. 22 at 5 p.m.:

  • Alamosa County
  • Otero County
  • Prowers County
  • Pueblo County

Despite its overwhelmed intensive care bed capacity, Mesa County moved to the red level of CDPHE’s dial system Nov. 20 and not the purple level, which CDPHE added to the dial recently. The purple level, a stay-at-home order, is reserved for counties that face the risk of their hospital capacity becoming overwhelmed.

However, a spokesperson for CDPHE said Nov. 19 that Mesa County would move to red, as planned, and not purple.

Under the red level of the dial, counties must close indoor dining at restaurants and prohibit personal gatherings and indoor events of any size.

Takeout, delivery and outdoor dining are allowed, and outdoor venues can hold events at up to 25% of normal capacity, with a maximum of 75 people maintaining 6 feet of distance between household groups.

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