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What COVID-19 models show for the fall

There are two main factors to watch here: vaccine uptake and how many people follow COVID precautions like masking and social distancing.

DENVER — The Colorado School of Public Health has been modeling COVID-19 data since the start of the pandemic. 

Thursday, we talked with associate professor Elizabeth Carlton about what modeling shows for Colorado in the next few months. 

What do the models show?

Professor Carlton said there are projections that put Colorado in a scenario where we could see another peak in hospitalizations akin to what happened in December 2020. 

The models were run a few weeks ago, as vaccinations were declining. The models indicated that if there was a low vaccination rate in August and transmission control -- things like wearing masks and social distancing -- declined, hospitalizations could approach the December 2020 peak. 

Since those models were run, vaccinations started to flatten overall, though they did increase in some age groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also put out guidance on masking indoors in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID as case numbers surged in areas across the country.

"I don't know if it's enough," said Carlton. "The name of the game in the month ahead is to get as many people eligible to be vaccinated." 

"The vaccine trends have shifted," she said. "I don't know if it's shifted enough." 

What can be done to avoid this? 

The models ran several scenarios, including trying to reach a goal of vaccinating 80% of adults with at least one shot by Labor Day, and 70% of eligible teens 12 to 17.  

"We would need a real substantial push in uptake," said Carlton. 

The most recent vaccination data shows 73.5% of adults 18 and older have had at least one dose, and 52.2% of 12 to 17-year-olds received one dose, with Labor Day just a few weeks away. 

If we stay on the current trajectory, with a slower vaccine uptake and some people choosing not to wear masks indoors, Carlton said we could be facing a disruptive fall. 

"People getting sick and going into the hospital," she said. "Disruptions to education, disruptions to work places as people test positive and figure out who needs to isolate and who stays home." 

As for what's currently happening with COVID-19 cases, Carlton said in the last month, the state went from a low of admitting around 35 people a day with COVID, which was still higher than numbers compared to last summer, to doubling the number of admissions in the last few weeks. 

"We don't know how long this increase is going to last," she said. 

What Carlton is watching for is not only a drop off in cases but a drop in hospitalizations to the point that it's comparable to June or last summer. 

What are the hospitals saying? 

UCHealth said they are watching this modeling and planning for a potential surge. This time around they are planning for both COVID patients as well as continuing other care. 

"We can have COVID, which is potentially going to surge, and then on top of that potentially flu and other respiratory viruses as well. In our thinking it's not just thinking COVID but thinking broadly," said Dr. Michelle Barron, an infectious disease specialist with UCHealth. 

Dr. Barron said when comparing last year to this year, this time around there is a mixed bag on mask guidance, more people out and about, and heading back into the classroom and offices, which is why they're anticipating seeing more respiratory viruses and hospital admissions for illness other than COVID.

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