‘Fourth wave’ of COVID-19 infections hitting Colorado, state health officials say

Hospitalizations exceed 400 statewide as spread of variants outpaces vaccination rates

Gov. Jared Polis gives an update on the extent of the coronavirus pandemic and the extend of the state's wildfires on Aug. 18, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Gov. Jared Polis and top state health officials acknowledged on Friday that rising COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations constitute a “fourth wave” of the deadly pandemic that is impacting Colorado and much of the rest of the country.

“This is a time of great concern in Colorado,” Polis said in a press conference on the state’s pandemic response. “Over the next few weeks and months, especially if you haven’t been vaccinated, please wear a mask whenever you’re around others, and avoid social gatherings.”

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At least 404 Coloradans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, according to state data — a significant increase over the past several weeks and the highest figure recorded since mid-February. While Polis noted that health providers have “plenty of capacity” remaining to deal with a surge in hospitalizations, the numbers confirm fears that the spread of the coronavirus, fueled by more transmissible variants, is accelerating for the fourth time in Colorado and many other states even as the number of vaccinated Americans rises.

Well over half of Colorado’s recent confirmed COVID-19 cases belong to one of the four “variants of concern” being tracked by the state, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That includes the most recent confirmed strain, the so-called P.1 variant that was first discovered in Brazil.

State testing has identified at least 12 cases of the P.1 strain, which scientists say is more easily transmissible, and possibly results in more severe symptoms, especially among young people. Officials say that while many older Coloradans are protected from the latest wave of infections by their high rates of vaccination, many people are still at risk.

“This fourth wave is going to look different,” Herlihy said. “The risk of hospitalization is clearly increasing in those less than 50, but is flat or decreasing in older age groups. This is an important reminder that severe infections can and are occurring in younger populations. It’s another reason why younger people need to be vaccinated as well.”

Colorado expanded vaccine eligibility to all residents 16 and older on April 2, and state data shows that about 1.9 million Coloradans have received at least one dose of one of the three approved vaccines. But with demand for vaccines continuing to exceed supply, it could still be weeks before many Coloradans who wish to be vaccinated can do so — and state health officials urged Coloradans to continue taking precautions until that happens.

“We really need to continue using the strategies we’ve been using,” Herlihy added. “That means wearing masks, social distancing, hand washing, staying home when sick or after exposure, getting tested — and of course, getting vaccinated as soon as you can.”

But despite pleading with Coloradans to bring an end to the fourth wave by “living like we did in February,” Polis showed no signs of letting up on the steady loosening of state-level public health restrictions that his administration has undertaken since early this year. He said that the state will move forward with its plans to end the current statewide dial system on April 16, changing its restrictions to “advisory” guidelines and giving the final say to local governments.

“Local governments will be able to make the best decisions based on their communities’ needs, and balancing those needs, through the dial,” Polis said. “I have full faith in our city councils, our mayors, our county commissioners, our local public health authorities, to know the best way to message the importance of mask-wearing and avoiding social gatherings, while we continue to achieve the level of vaccinations we need to finally end this terrible pandemic.”

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