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'We have a crisis, a crisis of the unvaccinated': Polis pleads for more Coloradans to get vaccinated

Gov. Jared Polis gave an update on the pandemic as the state's cases and hospitalizations hit their highest levels since January.

DENVER — There are 964 Coloradans currently hospitalized and 744 of those hospitalizations are among people that are not vaccinated, Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) said in an update Wednesday afternoon. 

"Does that mean that we would have no hospitalizations if everyone was vaccinated? No, but it wouldn’t be anything close to a crisis," Polis said. "We are here because we have a crisis, a crisis of the unvaccinated." 

Polis said that the state has seen elevated incidents of COVID in the last week and Colorado continues to have the highest level of hospitalizations since January. 

"We have a very high rate," Polis said. "I want to be clear, the people being hospitalized are by and large the unvaccinated."

Polis was joined by Dr. Kyle Leggott from UCHealth and Dr. Sean O'Leary from Children's Hospital Colorado.

> Watch the full update below:

During the news conference, Polis cited a chart that presented what works when it comes to vaccination and hospitalization rates in the state. 

“As counties are getting 75% to 80% of their total population vaccinated, you see a hospitalization rate that’s about a quarter of our counties that have lower vaccination rates,” he said.

Credit: KUSA

Polis congratulated the counties with high vaccination rates such as Eagle, Boulder and Broomfield which according to Polis have had hardly any hospitalizations. But he also expressed his frustration with the unnecessary hospitalizations in the counties with lower vaccination rates. 

"As folks in Eagle, Boulder and Broomfield county demonstrate, we have the solution," Polis said. "The doctors who are going to talk today, your local doctor that you see knows the solution. It is [a] highly effective and safe vaccine which dramatically reduces everyone's risk - first and foremost, your risk of contracting the virus, of being hospitalized if you get it and of dying if you are hospitalized." 

Booster shots

Polis also weighed in on booster shots, which he said provide an increase in vaccine efficacy, particularly at long term care facilities (LTCF).

He also reiterated the importance of getting the first two doses of the vaccine as those still provide the highest level of protection.

The chart that was referenced at the news conference noted that 93.5 % of LTCF residents in Colorado are fully vaccinated and 80% are already scheduled for the booster.

Across the general population, 85.4% of people 65 and up are fully vaccinated and 18.3% have received the booster shot. 

Credit: KUSA

Polis said he plans on getting his booster shot once Moderna is approved.

Polis encouraged people that got the Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago to get a booster as well as those who got Moderna and have a weakened immune system or are older.

Vaccine hesitancy

Polis was joined at the news conference by Dr. Kyle Leggott from UCHealth. He is a family physician and a vaccine provider.

Leggott said the vaccine helps protect the most vulnerable patients. One of his patients - who is 85 years old, a cancer survivor and who has multiple medical conditions - was diagnosed with COVID but because he was vaccinated, he only had mild symptoms. After treatment, Leggott said his patient fully recovered. 

He said he helped this patient, along with others, get all of their questions answered and address their concerns. He said he wanted people to know that it's okay to have questions, to be hesitant about the vaccine and about its potential side effects.

"Ultimately, if you are unvaccinated, I encourage you to get vaccinated, but if you are hesitant please reach out to your doctor's office or your clinic because we want to have those conversations with you," he said.

Cases among children

Eleven of the patients hospitalized in Colorado are ages 0-11 and eight are 12-17. 

Polis said that although hospitals are seeing low pediatric hospitalizations, the availability of the vaccine for those who are 12-17 should make that number zero. 

About 60% of 12-17-year-olds in the state have had at least their first dose of the vaccine and according to Polis, the vaccine is even more effective for younger people than it is for older people.

Dr. Sean O'Leary from Children's Hospital Colorado also weighed in on the importance of getting the vaccine and how children of all ages have suffered throughout the pandemic. 

O'Leary said children have suffered both directly from getting COVID-19 infections and indirectly from unintended consequences such as school closures and a worsening of an already-existent mental health crisis. For many, even the loss of a parent or loved one. 

According to O'Leary, with over 500 pediatric deaths, COVID-19 is one of the top 10 causes of childhood deaths in the US. 

"The highly contagious Delta variant has changed the calculus for risk to children considerably," he said. "It's so contagious that in the next several months, for unvaccinated persons, the question is not if they will get infected, but when."

Since September, infections in children are at the highest point that they've ever been during the pandemic, and according to Dr. O'Leary, many Children's hospitals have recently had overflowing ICU's. 

Children's Hospital Colorado has cared for over 1000 children hospitalized with COVID-19.

He mentioned that hospitals in both Colorado and throughout the country are facing difficulties meeting staffing needs particularly due to nurse shortages due to a combination of factors including pandemic fatigue. 

"Respiratory virus' that they normally see during the winter are at very high levels right now," O'Leary said. "And those combined with children with COVID-19 have led to a pretty full hospital."

O'Leary encouraged people to get vaccinated in an effort to protect their children and keep them in school. He also encouraged parents to vaccinate their children once the vaccine for those aged 5 to 11 years old is approved. This way, if a child is exposed, he or she won't have to quarantine and it will prevent school absences. 

There are roughly 450,000 children between the ages of 5 to 11 in Colorado, representing about 12% of the population. 

"Vaccinated Coloradans have already done their part," Polis said. "Some are due for a booster and they should get it, but sadly the unvaccinated neighbors continue to be at very high risk of disease, death and hospitalization."

RELATED: Association says Colorado hospitals are telling ambulances to take patients somewhere else more frequently

RELATED: Jefferson County requires county, municipal workers to be vaccinated, be tested weekly or work from home

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