The percentage of Coloradans hospitalized with COVID-19 who are unvaccinated is less overwhelming than it was in the fall, but people who’ve had the shot still appear to have more protection against serious illness.
During the peak of the delta wave, from mid-November to late December, between 80% and 86% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 any given day were unvaccinated, according to state data. The percentage started dropping on New Year’s Eve, and hovered around 70% this week.
But it appears that those who are most seriously ill are more likely to be unvaccinated. At UCHealth, about 82% of COVID-19 patients in the intensive-care unit and 91% of those patients on ventilators were unvaccinated as of Thursday morning. No one tracks the vaccination status of all patients in ICUs or on ventilators statewide.
The more-contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 has made it a bit more difficult to interpret hospitalization numbers and vaccine effectiveness than in previous waves, said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection control and prevention at UCHealth.
During the fall wave driven by the delta variant, the number of patients who happened to test positive for COVID-19 but primarily needed care for something else was “minimal,” she said. As of this week, though, about two-thirds of COVID-positive patients at UCHealth came in for some other reason.
On a recent day, only about one-third of the 355 patients who had tested positive for the virus were receiving oxygen or a medication used for severe COVID-19, like the steroid dexamethasone or the antiviral remdesivir, Barron said. The health system is still analyzing the data to see if those patients were disproportionately likely to be unvaccinated, she said.
Barron, who works with patients who have had organ or bone marrow transplants, said that all of the people she saw recently who were vaccinated and had COVID-19 were there because of other infections or accidents.
That’s notable because people with suppressed immune systems are one of the groups that’s most vulnerable to a severe breakthrough infection — though the number of people she saw was too small to draw a scientific conclusion. The one patient who was seriously sick from the virus was unvaccinated, she said.
“It really hit home that omicron is behaving potentially differently,” she said.
The state published data differently before November, so it’s difficult to compare the current situation with the end of the third wave in winter 2020 or the fourth wave in spring 2021.
Looking at the weekly data published since January 2021, the percentage of hospitalized patients who are unvaccinated fell from 100% to around 75% at points during the delta surge. Part of that simply reflects vaccine coverage in the state: as of early January 2021, no one was two weeks out from their second shot, meaning the entire population was considered unvaccinated.
Now, more than 3.8 million of Colorado’s roughly 5.8 million people have been vaccinated — 77% of all adults in the state. That means three-quarters of the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations still are coming from the one-quarter of the population that isn’t fully vaccinated.
“More vaccinated people are testing positive, and the sheer volume of positive cases will result in increased hospital demand,” a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said. “The vaccines are working effectively at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19.”
Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their highest point since the pandemic began, according to The New York Times. Colorado hasn’t yet passed the record set in early December 2020, but the state’s hospitals are strapped, with about 92% of intensive-care beds and 93% of general beds full this week.
While it’s good news that omicron generally causes less severe disease, that doesn’t mean everyone should catch it and “get it over with,” Barron said. Some people are still becoming seriously ill, and some who have mild infections go on to develop long-COVID symptoms like persistent fatigue, she said. And the sheer number of people infected means that even if any individual’s risk of severe disease is low, hospitals could run out of room.
“I think the next two weeks are going to be a rough rise just because of numbers,” she said.
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