Colorado is now experiencing a fourth wave of COVID-19 as infections and hospitalizations rise, but the increasing level of vaccination should make it less severe than the deadly spike late last fall, state officials said Friday.
Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have risen most in people younger than 50, who are less likely to have been vaccinated, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said. It’s good news that the vaccine is protecting older people, who are most vulnerable to severe symptoms, but younger people need to keep up precautions until they get the shot, she said.
“This fourth wave is going to look different,” she said during a news briefing with Gov. Jared Polis.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 454 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon. It was the highest total since Feb. 18.
Cases continued their bumpy upward trajectory, with 1,545 new infections recorded on Thursday.
The spread of more-contagious coronavirus variants has contributed to the rising numbers, Herlihy said. More than half of cases in Colorado are caused by “variants of concern,” with the B.1.1.7 variant accounting for the most cases, she said. The variant, first found in the United Kingdom, is more contagious than the version of the virus that dominated before, and it may cause more-severe illness.
“If you develop COVID now, chances are you’re going to be infected with a variant that is more transmissible,” she said.
The state has found 12 cases of the P.1 variant, which first was announced Tuesday. That variant, first found in Brazil, is more contagious and more likely to infect people who recovered from another version of the virus. It’s not clear if it causes more severe illness or might make vaccines slightly less effective, Herlihy said.
The cases are in Boulder, Denver, Broomfield and Arapahoe counties, Herlihy said. Some had traveled out-of-state recently or were connected to a cluster, but it isn’t as clear where others got it.
“We believe that there have been multiple introductions,” she said.
Polis indicated the state would move forward with plans to move responsibility for almost all decisions about public health restrictions to counties and cities next week, and said he has “full faith” in local officials to make the best choices.
The state health department would continue to regulate large indoor events and to publish information under its color-coded dial framework, but local officials would be free to ignore its recommendations.
The board of the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, voted Thursday to extend its use of the dial until May 15, according to The Parker Chronicle. It would, however, move the three counties down one level in the meantime, loosening restrictions somewhat.
Polis urged residents who aren’t vaccinated to be as careful about wearing masks and social distancing as they were a few months ago, and to go outdoors if they decide to gather with people they don’t live with. It’s important to get vaccinated, and everyone 16 or older who wants the shot should be able to get it by late May, he said.
“We don’t need to ride a fourth wave of the virus,” he said. “We just need to go back to where we were in February.”
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