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State health leaders strike optimistic tone as COVID case rates decline

Immunity levels are expected to remain high through early summer, state modeling shows.

DENVER — For the first time in Colorado since the fall, there are more acute care hospital beds available than there are patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, the number of people being treated for COVID-19 was 641 and state modeling shows that number is likely to continue to decrease in the coming weeks. There are 862 beds available, according to Scott Bookman, COVID-19 incident commander.

"So, a pretty significant increase in our hospital bed capacity as case rates and hospitalizations continue to move down quite dramatically," he said.

By the end of February, hospitalization levels are expected to be at or near levels that were last seen in the summer of 2021.

RELATED: Estimated 73% of US now immune to omicron: Is that enough?

The improvements allowed the state to deactivate the crisis standards of care that were previously enacted for hospital staffing and emergency medical services. The crisis stands of care for staffing had been in place since Nov. 9 of last year, while the emergency medical services one was enacted in January when the omicron variant was spreading rapidly.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) said Thursday that as of Feb. 13, modeling showed about 1 in 69 people in Colorado were infectious, which state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said is still high, but moving in the right direction. 

They also noted that statewide it's estimated that 90% of people are immune to the omicron variant and most are protected against severe disease if they do become infected.

"All the way out to June, those immunity levels stay pretty high," Herlihy said. "This is, of course, impacted by the potential for a new variant, that results in more immune escape could change this picture dramatically."

Herlihy also noted that 90% is a statewide estimate so there may be communities in the state where immunity levels are higher or lower.

As of Tuesday, Colorado's seven-day positivity rate was at 6.88%, which is well below the peak of about 29% just a few weeks ago. The goal is still to be at or below 5% positivity. 

State health leaders had an overall optimistic tone delivering the Thursday update.

"It's great news," Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention at UCHealth, said of the COVID trends. "It's what we've all been hoping for for a long time. And so I think it's pretty exciting to see that it's there."

Barron said the improving trends, as well as vaccination rates, show Colorado may be approaching the endemic phase of COVID-19, when the virus no longer spreads unchecked through the population.

"At least in Colorado, the fact that immunity rates seem to be as high as they are, the [infection] rates are plummeting, it kind of tells you we're heading that direction and there's nothing on the horizon. Could that change? Possibly. I think it's less likely the longer we go without a big up and down, it's more likely it is that we reached a steady state," she said.

State health leaders continued to express optimism, but cautioned the virus is unpredictable and things could change quickly.

Barron also added an "asterisk" to her optimism. A new COVID variant could throw a wrench into the improving trends.

"All viruses will have some version of a variant, so this is not unique to COVID," she said. "The question is, is it different enough to where all the protections we have with vaccinations, boosters, medications, immunity, etc – aren’t good enough?"

"And the bigger question from that is -- how bad will it be?" she said.

Barron said vaccinations and booster shots are still valuable for protection against COVID19.

Masking in Colorado

While many places have lifted their indoor mandates some businesses are still requiring and some people are choosing to wear them.

For those who want to wear them, masks are available for free through the state at more than 430 community locations.

Those locations can be found here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Wednesday that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks, noting recent declines in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

RELATED: CDC contemplating change in mask guidance in coming weeks

RELATED: Will a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine be necessary? Expert clarifies doubts

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