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Certified nursing assistant Britni Rockwell speaks with a nurse inside a patient’s room at one of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital’s ICUs for patients with COVID-19. The number of people needing hospital care for COVID-19 is expected to continue to rise.

More than 9% of El Paso County residents tested for COVID-19 over the past week were infected with the virus, in what officials call a bad sign as fall sets in. 

The jump in what health officials call the “positivity rate” is an indicator of how quickly the virus is spreading and likely foreshadows a continued rise in the number of people getting sick and needing hospital care in the coming weeks, said Dr. Richard Vu, founder of Matthews-Vu Medical Group and El Paso County Board of Health member. 

"I am concerned it is still increasing," he said.

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The percentage of people testing positive has been steadily rising and reached 9.24% on Monday. The previous peak was on Jan. 3 when the county saw a positivity rate of 9.58%, said Michelle Hewitt, a spokeswoman for El Paso County Public Health. 

The state's goal is to keep the average percentage of people testing positive below 5%. Across Colorado, the percentage of people testing positive was 6.6% this week. The number of people in need of hospital care has also risen steadily statewide since the end of July up to 1,021 hospitalized patients who contracted the virus or are suspected of having it as of Tuesday, data shows. Statewide about 230 intensive care unit hospital beds remained available, state date shows. 

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On average, 1,700 people have tested positive statewide for coronavirus each day over the last week, a number that's fallen since a recent peak on Sept. 5. 

Many people who contract the virus have mild cases and can recover at home, officials said. 

However, monoclonal antibody medication, a treatment that helps keep patients at home, has been tougher to obtain, Vu said. 

Patients can enroll in clinical trials to get the medications. But, as part of the studies, some of those patients will get a placebo instead of the drugs being tested, he said. 

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The number of people contracting the virus on average in El Paso County is down slightly since Sept. 5 as well, although the virus is still spreading fast with 2,040 people testing positive in the last week, county statistics show. The need for hospital care in the county has risen steadily up to 155 hospitalized patients with the virus or suspected of having it on Monday. Most of those patients in need of hospital care are unvaccinated, officials said. 

Within UCHealth, about 82% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated. Of the hospitalized patients who were vaccinated at the time of admission, many are immunocompromised, said spokeswoman Cary Vogrin. 

In El Paso County, the most populous in the state, 60.8% of the population is fully vaccinated and 67.7% of residents received at least one shot, including military members, according to county data. 

Even a surge of El Paso County residents getting vaccines in the next few days, would require time for those vaccines to be effective, Vu said. The doctor said  basic protections like wearing a mask and social distancing are still important. Those measures could help schools stay open and prevent outbreaks, he said. 

As of last week, students in El Paso County schools were twice as likely to be infected with coronavirus as their peers in rest of the state, the Gazette reported previously.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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