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Colorado COVID cases declining, but concern over post-holiday spike remains

State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said the decrease could represent an improvement in case transmission rates, but data may be skewed by the holiday weekend.

DENVER — Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) gave an update Tuesday on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including details on monitoring for the newly-discovered omicron variant.

CDPHE State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said that the latest data show there has been a fairly significant decrease in cases being reported. While she said the decrease could represent an improvement in case transmission rates, there is a possibility the data is being skewed by the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We know that following holidays there are often changes in individuals' behavior in seeking tests. There's changes in reporting patterns, changes in data entry patterns," Herlihy said. "All of that can lead to a misrepresentation of the current number of cases that are occurring, so we expect this data to correct itself in the next week or so."

Herlihy said that there are currently 1,466 COVID patients hospitalized as of Tuesday, which is a decrease from recent totals. She said the decrease is another indicator transmission could be decreasing, but warned of another potential surge following the holiday weekend.

RELATED: What do we know about Omicron variant? And why are scientists so worried?

CDPHE said it is monitoring for the omicron variant and is in contact with the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

While initial anecdotal reports from doctors indicate most patients infected with the omicron variant experience mild symptoms, Herlihy said more data is needed to determine its severity and level of transmissibility.

Herlihy also said that genetically, omicron most closely resembles variants that were circulating around mid-2020.

There are currently no confirmed cases in Colorado, and Herlihy said the majority of patients in Colorado and the rest of the United States are infected with the delta variant.

> Watch Tuesday's full press conference

Emily Travanty, CDPHE state lab director, said there are mechanisms in place to detect the variant. 

Most common rapid PCR and antigen tests are expected to be able to detect omicron infections, according to Traventy.

In addition, state, private and commercial labs are conducting genome sequencing on samplings of tests.

The state is also leading a wastewater monitoring collaboration with utilities to monitor levels of COVID-19 particles in wastewater, and looking for genetic markers that are consistent with the presence of COVID-19 variants, including omicron. 

“Pandemics aren’t easy. The virus is tricky and trying to survive us at every turn, but we know what to do to help stop it,” Dr. Eric France, CDPHE chief medical officer, said. “We need everyone to do what they’ve done in the past and continue to take precautions. Protecting yourself against other variants, like the delta variant, as well as the flu, will help us be ready for if/when the omicron variant arrives here.”

RELATED: Q&A: UCHealth's top infectious disease doctor on the omicron variant

Omicron variant could be identified in wastewater first

The state’s epidemiologist said it likely is only a matter of time until the omicron variant, which public health leaders don’t know much about, gets here.

“The reality is we still do have a lot to learn still,” Herlihy said.

She and other state health leaders reinforced that people in Colorado shouldn’t panic about the new variant. Herlihy said there isn’t much people can do differently than the advice they’ve been giving for months.

“The strategies that we used for Alpha are the same strategies that we’re using now for Delta and the same strategies that we’ll use for Omicron when it arrives in Colorado and the US,” Herlihy said.

Early data seems to indicate the new variant could be more infectious and could lead to some reinfection. Herlihy said the current variant in Colorado, the delta variant, acts similarly.

“The takeaway here is that individuals who are unvaccinated, whether they’ve been previously infected or not are going to be at high risk,” Herlihy said.

She stressed that people should continue doing what the department has been suggesting for months: getting an initial vaccination, wearing a mask in crowded public spaces and getting a booster dose of the vaccine.

“I think it also reinforces the need for booster doses, knowing that there could be some level of immune evasion,” she said.

Colorado already ranks tenth in the nation for the number of samples sequenced for variants, according to Emily Travanty, who heads the state’s public health laboratory.

“The vast majority of what is circulating right now -- close to 100 percent of what we see right now is delta,” Travanty said.

Travanty said nearly all molecular samples that are positive for COVID are sequenced to see if they include a variant.

Currently the state is looking for the variant in those positive samples and through tests of wastewater.

"In many parts of the state we saw it first in the wastewater before we saw it in people,” she said of the delta variant.

Travanty said she expects we could see signs of the new variant in wastewater as well.

Colorado has been tracking COVID through wastewater for much of the pandemic.

"When someone has COVID, we’ve found that just under 50% of people with COVID shed COVID in their stool regardless of whether or not they have symptoms," Rachel Jervis, an epidemiologist with CDPHE, said.

CDPHE partners with 21 sewer sheds to test the wastewater up and down the Front Range. 

The health department said it is hoping to partner with more water utilities going forward to test more wastewater around the state.

RELATED: CDPHE uses wastewater testing to monitor which COVID variants are spreading in Colorado

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