Virus Outbreak Colorado

A skateboarder wears a protective face shield while passing through the grounds of the State Capitol, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in downtown Denver. 

Colorado's rate of positive COVID tests is at its highest point since January, new state data shows, throwing up another red flag as leaders look to unravel restrictions in the coming days.

State data tracks three different positivity metrics: a seven- and three-day average, as well as a daily rate, which can fluctuate significantly. The latest data on all three metrics shows the highest point since the beginning of the year. On Sunday, 7.6% of tests were positive; that's the highest single-day rate since Jan. 5. Both the three- and seven-day averages are higher than they've been since mid-January. 

What's more, the seven-day average of new cases is higher than it's been since Feb. 8. If the state followed the metrics it laid out for individual counties, it would be in level yellow — a middle-of-the-pack designation that would impose restrictions on capacity and the closure of bars. 

If there's a silver lining, it's that hospitalizations have remained relatively stable. They're still at a high plateau, officials have previously said, and topped 400 patients for the first time since March 1. But they've yet to jump the way they have during previous waves, though experts say hospitalizations climb two weeks after cases spike.

The low hospitalization rate may be accounted for by the rate of vaccinations in the state's oldest residents, who accounted for a plurality of admissions. Data provided by the state Department of Public Health and Environment shows cases and deaths among the state's oldest and most vulnerable residents have plummeted since the vaccine was introduced.

The hospitalization data is perhaps the most-heeded canary in the coal mine for state leaders. Gov. Jared Polis and the state health department are preparing to almost entirely step back from COVID restrictions, which spokespeople for the agency said is in large part because hospitalizations have stabilized. That move is expected to be made in mid-April.

"A goal of the state’s restrictions has always been to protect hospital capacity," spokeswoman Jessica Bralish said late last week. "The updates reflect the increasing number of Coloradans who have received a COVID-19 vaccine over the past four months. People ages 70 and older have accounted for 38% of all hospitalizations over the course of the pandemic in Colorado. Our latest data show 79% of Coloradans age 70+ have received the first dose of the vaccine, and over 73% of that population is fully vaccinated."

Still, the numbers indicate the quickening pace of the race between vaccinations and a potential fourth wave. That contest is complicated by the presence of variants. Bralish said the state is seeing an increased presence in them, and state medical officer Eric France said last month that variants account for roughly 30% of the disease circulating in Colorado.

In an email last week, Jon Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said that "hopefully" vaccinations will slow the rising curve. But if it doesn't, then the state's plan to devolve restrictions to the county level "might well be affected."

Glen Mays, another expert with the school of public health, said Friday that the current COVID situation is concerning. The state, he said, may want to exercise caution when it comes to loosening restrictions.

"If the goal of state policy is to avoid a catastrophic overwhelming of the healthcare system, then we don’t appear to be in any real danger of this in the near term," he wrote in an email. "So this may be a reason for loosening restrictions. But if the goal of state policy is to protect the public against serious adverse health consequences, then we are clearly not out of the woods yet."

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