Colorado is expected to hit a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations within the next two to three days, state health officials said Wednesday, warning that "the pandemic is surging across Colorado."
"We're seeing a steep rise in hospitalizations and mounting pressure on the hospital system," Rachel Herlihy, an epidemiologist with the state health department, said during a virtual news conference.
As of Wednesday, 83% of ICU beds and 82% of acute care beds in the state were in use, according to state data. Nearly 40% of adult critical care ventilators are in use.
On Wednesday the Colorado Hospitals Association announced that it had created a combined hospital transfer center in anticipation of a greater surge of cases. The center will be activated if the number of patients needing transfer exceeds local capacity, according to a news release from the group.
The anticipated strain on hospital capacity comes after a week of case counts routinely topping 2,000 per day, and as the percent of people tested found to have the virus approaches 10% — double the upper limit recommended by the World Health Organization for communities to reopen.
That rate has more than doubled over the past week, Herlihy said, and continues to increase daily.
The average Coloradan with the sometimes deadly virus now spreads it to 1.66 other people, said Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health.
Transmission control is dropping among all age groups, he said, adding that the rise in hospitalizations is happening more rapidly than the state forecasted.
"We are exceeding too quickly these trajectories as the epidemic propagates," he said. "The curve is going up steeply, perhaps even more steeply than we estimated earlier in the week."
If conditions stay the same, the state could see ICU bed capacity exceeded in late December, he said, adding that this milestone could be reached as soon as mid-December if transmission increases due to holiday gatherings.
The tricky part of controlling the virus' spread is that people are most contagious before they're symptomatic, said Eric France, state health department chief medical officer.
"You might feel fine today, but you're destined tomorrow to feel sick," he said. "Today you're walking around spreading the virus.
"This is our challenge: How do we not spread the virus?"
That's why minimizing social contact and maximizing social distancing are so key, regardless of risk or symptoms — it's impossible to tell, without testing, who is a walking contagion, France said.
"We need each Coloradan to personally do their part by taking precautions as if it was April," he added.
At least 18 counties now qualify for stay-at-home orders based on disease incidence, France said, adding that those counties would be working with the state over the coming days to solidify plans that will attempt to rein in spread of the disease.
As of Wednesday El Paso County, with 470 cases of the virus per 100,000 residents over a two-week period, and Denver County, with 620 cases per 100,000 residents over the same time, had exceeded the threshold of 350 set by the state.
El Paso County sits in the middle at Safer at Home Level 2, or yellow, while Denver is at Safer at Home Level 3, or orange — the last stop before a stay-at-home order.
The state health department announced Wednesday that Boulder County would join Denver in the orange zone due to rapid growth of the virus in the county. Its incidence per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks has been 312, according to a news release sent Wednesday by Boulder County Public Health.
France said he expected local leaders in counties hardest hit by the virus to begin considering curfews, as the city of Pueblo did last week, and other measures that could avert a lockdown.
Controlling the virus will be an uphill battle, officials said, as COVID fatigue settles in further, the holidays approach, and, potentially, given the colder weather ahead, there might be a component of seasonality to COVID-19 as there is with the flu and common cold.
"Perhaps the virus likes the cold weather," Samet said. "That's something we don't understand, but some (viruses) do."