The omicron variant has driven a huge spike in COVID-19 cases in El Paso County in the last week as the state faces a shortage of monoclonal antibody treatments, new antiviral medications and health care staff.
The county had seen 5,573 COVID-19 cases in the last week as of Monday up from 2,335 new cases in seven days as of Dec. 27, a week ago. The rate of new cases over the last week was 771.4 per 100,000 residents, the highest incidence since the beginning of the pandemic in the county, said Michelle Beyrle, El Paso County Health spokeswoman. The numbers are likely to rise given the trends and data lags following a holiday.
Colorado Springs hospitals have yet to see a spike in patients, but it is expected in the coming days, based on the pattern omicron has followed in other cities, said Dr. Michael Roshon, an emergency room physician with Penrose-St. Francis and the vice president of research operations for Centura.
Patients with the coronavirus are already in need of care and the emergency rooms and primary care offices are quite busy, he said.
"We fully anticipate we are going to see a spike in cases in the hospital over the next week for sure," he said. Most vaccinated people are likely to get a mild case and he expects to see severe cases mostly among unvaccinated residents.
Across the county about 23% of those getting tested on average over the last week had the virus. With such fast community spread of the virus, many hospital workers are also getting sick and needing time off, a problem that could compound the staffing shortages that have been hurting hospitals for months.
"That’s the fear — If the surge hits at the same time as many of the doctors and nurses are out," Roshon said.
To help ease some staffing needs, the state sent registered nurses, certified nursing assistants and respiratory therapists from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Penrose Hospital last week, said Becky Brockman, a spokeswoman for the hospital. The extra staff will stay three months and work in the intensive care units and in the medical and surgical units, she said.
The additional staff are starting at Penrose as the Staffing Shortage Fusion Center has sent hundreds of additional employees across the state. The fusion center has provided 193 contracted and National Guard staff statewide to facilities and eight volunteers. The center is also providing about 425 staff to eight Colorado Hospitals, the state health department said last week. Federal medical surge teams deployed 19 Health and Human Services contractors to Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo through Dec. 21 and 22 Department of Defense personnel to Poudre Valley Medical Center in Fort Collins through Dec. 23, the state said.
Hospitals and health care providers are also facing a shortage of the monoclonal antibody treatment, sotrovimab, that is effective against the omicron variant.
New antiviral medications, molnupiravir and paxlovid, that were approved under an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration just before Christmas, offer new options but they also are in short supply and need to be reserved for patients at highest risk, Roshon said.
Patients need to take the antivirals five days after the onset of symptoms for them to be effective, and so those with multiple conditions putting them at risk should be in touch with their primary care doctors in the first few days after getting sick, he said. Some of those conditions include diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, among others.
Getting the medications to those patients in time may prove tricky because some people may not even be sick enough to think about getting tested in the first few days, he said.
"If you wait until you’re really sick, then it’s too late for those medicines to be helpful," he said.
The state health department manages the distribution of the monoclonal antibodies and the antivirals and El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said her health department will continue to persistently advocate for the community.
The best protection against severe illness and hospitalization is the COVID-19 vaccine. Both doses plus a booster can dramatically reduce the risk of getting sick at all and spreading the virus, Roshon said.
More than 63% of the eligible residents in El Paso County are vaccinated, or about 423,000 individuals, and about 111,700 people have received their booster, Beyrle said.
Wheelan noted that zero risk does not exist with this virus and residents should be prepared.
"As we see increased cases of Omicron spread in El Paso County communities, anticipate disruptions and do advanced planning for what you will do if you or a family member become ill," she said. More info is available at elpasocountyhealth.org/isolation-and-quarantine.
The Gazette's Seth Klamann contributed to this report.