DENVER (KDVR) — As hospitalizations rise in Colorado, the distinction between COVID patients in the hospital because of COVID or just hospitalized with COVID has never been more important in understanding how the virus is impacting our system.
As of Monday, there were 1,402 confirmed patients with COVID-19 in Colorado hospitals, according to state data. Just before Thanksgiving, the previous recent peak for COVID hospitalizations was 1,565 confirmed COVID patients on Nov. 22. But how many of those patients are in the hospital for other reasons, like kidney transplants or broken legs, but show up with a positive asymptomatic test?
State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said they are doing that analysis and are seeing some differences now that the omicron variant accounts for 100% of new Colorado cases.
“Historically throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen typically about 80-90% of people in the hospital with COVID-19, their hospitalization is due to COVID-19,” Herlihy said. “But that number looks like it’s a little bit lower now. Approximately 65% right now.”
Herlihy said just because someone has a mild COVID case and is in the hospital for a different reason, doesn’t mean that person doesn’t put more strain on the system.
“We know that those hospitalizations are complicated by those persons having COVID infections,” Herlihy said. “It can result in a longer hospital stay, a more severe hospital stay. Even those patients that have mild infections or are asymptomatic, those individuals need to be cared for in a certain way to prevent their infections from being transmitted to staff or other patients.”
When it comes to reporting this data more consistently on the state’s dashboard, Herlihy wouldn’t commit to a specific date for when they will have the data available daily but explained the lag in reporting from hospitals.
It takes days to get the data distinguishing between patients with COVID or because of COVID, because the hospital has to submit coding data and have a really good understanding of what caused the hospitalizations. With other respiratory viruses combined with COVID, sometimes the reason for hospitalization isn’t immediately clear.
“What we’re hearing from the hospitals is that the patients that they are seeing that have severe illness, those that are in the ICU, do tend to be that unvaccinated population,” Herlihy said.
This distinction may also help explain another trend in state data that would otherwise be troubling: The share of vaccinated hospital patients testing positive is growing.
Last Monday, Jan. 3, unvaccinated Coloradans in the hospital accounted for 80% of COVID patients. As of Monday, Jan. 10, the unvaccinated account for 69% of Colorado COVID patients in hospitals.
“This distinction between patients that are hospitalized due to COVID versus with COVID is also coming into play in the numbers that we’re seeing here,” Herlihy said. “I would say that vaccinated people are probably more likely to be in the hospital with COVID while unvaccinated people are more likely to be in the hospital due to COVID.”
Moving away from hospitals, Colorado is experiencing a time where COVID has never been more prevalent in the community. The state’s positivity rate has stayed between 25-30% for the past week, and FOX31 is learning the true rate could be even higher.
Colorado has an at-home-testing program where the state will ship four BinaxNOW tests to your door for free. With testing demand through the roof, these tests sometimes take up to three weeks to deliver, according to an automated notification received upon ordering.
The state is not counting those test results, even when submitted, to the overall positivity rate found on the state’s website, because the data coming in isn’t reliably consistent.
“With PCR tests we have great numerator and denominator data,” Herlihy said. “With the rapid or at-home tests, we have the challenge that not all are reported to public health, and we believe that positive tests are much more likely to be reported than negative tests. So we really don’t have the appropriate denominator to calculate that percent positivity with those rapid at-home type tests.”
Herlihy said it’s not necessarily inevitable that every Coloradan will catch COVID, despite the record levels in transmission across the state.
As for whether we have reached an endemic stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, Herlihy said we shouldn’t be so eager to label this wave of infections as the beginning of that phase.
“I think there’s lots of debate on what that definition of endemic means. I would say this very large wave of illness that we’re experiencing now would not meet the definition of endemic quite yet,” Herlihy said. “This is certainly an epidemic-like curve that we’re seeing. I think we’re hopefully going to be seeing that in the near future. I would also caution the COVID-19 virus has presented us with lots of challenges with these new variants and it’s hard to predict what the next couple of months are going to look like.”