The odds of running into someone with COVID-19 in Colorado remain high, but the state got its first signs that the tide may be turning.
Hospitalizations, the percentage of tests coming back positive and cases all dropped in the week ending Sunday. While the number of people who are contagious in the state remains high, this wave may have peaked, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“The numbers are a lot more encouraging this week,” she said.
Colorado might have a relatively placid summer, with the recent wave of infections providing some protection for the next few months, Carlton said. Or, the lull could be brief, as the BA.4 and BA.5 variants become dominant. Much remains unknown about how well an infection with BA.2.12.1 which is currently the most common variant in Colorado, protects against the two ascendant variants, she said.
“In general, people who’ve had more recent infections are more protected,” she said. “We’ve probably blown through most of the susceptible population in Colorado in the last few months.”
The most recent data, from June 5, shows BA.4 and BA.5 were found in almost 35% of virus samples sequenced in Colorado. BA.2.12.1 was found in just over half.
How much of a role vaccinations of children under 5 will have in reducing the number of susceptible people is unclear, Carlton said.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 dropped to 304 on Tuesday, from 323 a week earlier, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It was the first time the number of people being treated for COVID-19 fell since mid-April.
The percentage of tests coming back positive also dropped, to about 11.2%. That’s down from about 12.7% two weeks ago, but still high enough to suggest large numbers of infections could be going undetected.
Cases dropped for the first time since late March, though those numbers continue to be the shakiest indicator because so many people aren’t reporting their home tests, Carlton said. The state reported 12,820 cases in the week ending Sunday, which is a 23% decrease from the previous week, but still about six times the level seen at the low point earlier this spring.
Outbreaks were the outlier and rose for an eighth week, to 575. Most of the increase came from correctional facilities, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
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Deaths haven’t started to decrease, but they typically lag behind hospitalizations by at least two weeks. In the first week of June, the state reported 53 deaths from COVID-19, which was the highest weekly total in three months. Data from more recent weeks is still incomplete, because of delayed reports.
High levels of vaccination and, to a lesser extent, immunity from prior infections, kept the death toll from rising nearly as steeply as infections, Carlton said. Nationwide, about 314 people are dying of COVID-19 each day — which is slightly higher than average daily deaths from diabetes — but it’s nowhere the toll that would have been seen if this many people had been infected in early 2020.
For now, wearing masks indoors is a good idea, since the virus is still widespread, Carlton said. As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considered 24 of Colorado’s 64 counties high-risk, based on their cases and hospitalizations.
“Just because things are declining doesn’t mean the risk automatically switches to zero,” she said.