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Coronavirus

Hospitals could be overwhelmed if older Coloradans don’t reduce their social interactions by more than half

A CU model suggests Colorado hospitals could exceed ICU bed capacity in September unless social-distancing guidelines are followed

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The coronavirus could peak beyond hospital capacity in Colorado in September unless older adults reduce social interactions by far more than normal for months to come, according to new modeling scenarios released Tuesday. 

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Colorado will need more intensive-care beds than exist in this state around Aug. 15 — right as school starts — unless people who are age 60 and older maintain strict social distancing and all Coloradans continue reduced social interactions, said public health officials during a remote news conference.

Under the models created by the University of Colorado School of Public Health, Colorado would need about 2,500 intensive-care beds by mid-September if those strict isolation recommendations are not followed. The state only has about 1,900 ICU beds. 

The key to preventing hospital overload is a math problem: If Coloradans go out in public — including to church, restaurants and stores — 65% less compared to normal times, ICU beds will not reach capacity even as cases of coronavirus rise in the fall. 

But if the state reduces social interaction by only 45% or 55%, Colorado hospitals are predicted to run out of space for patients who need critical care.

To comply, older adults should think about this this way: cut social interactions by more than half, not less than half, said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state epidemiologist. 

A slide from a May 26, 2020, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presentation showing the projected course of the coronavirus pandemic under several different scenarios. Regardless of the scenario, the models predict that cases of COVID-19 will be increasing by late summer (the vertical dashed line) when kids return to school. The models also show that Coloradans must maintain a high level of social distancing for months into the future to avoid exceeding the state’s capacity of critical-case hospital beds (the horizontal dashed line). (Screenshot)

Ask friends and neighbors to do the shopping. Avoid going to restaurants, because that’s a common place where older adults could come in close proximity to younger people who might have coronavirus but are asymptomatic. And consider that less time in public means less potential exposure to the virus — religious services, for example, are likely to include many people and take much longer than a quick trip into a store, state public health officials explained. 

The latest models focus on older people because that is the age group most likely to need hospitalization due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Still, they rely on a scenario in which all Coloradans continue to reduce social interactions.

The modeling is based on a scenario in which most of the population continues social distancing at 55% and older adults adhere to stricter isolation. 

To make sure hospitals are not overrun, older adults “will need to maintain social distancing at the level seen during the stay-at-home order,” which was about 80% officials said. The rest of Coloradans should try to cut social interactions by at least half, compared to normal times.

Colorado continues to see a decline in hospitalizations due to the virus, even as the state moved from a stay-at-home order into the “safer-at-home” phase, which includes recommendations that people wear face coverings in public and that gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people. 

A chart from a May 26, 2020, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presentation showing the hours people in the state have spent at home during the coronavirus pandemic. The chart shows people started spending less time at home even before the state lifted its stay-at-home order. (Screenshot)

But health officials cautioned that, for those who end up in the hospital, there is typically a 13-day lag between when they are infected and when they need hospitalization, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. That means the initial effect of relaxing isolation orders — which began May 8 — still is unknown. 

An estimated 170,000 Coloradans, or 2.9% of the population, have been infected with the virus, according to the School of Public Health’s model. More than 1,000 people in Colorado with the virus who were age 70 or older have died, the vast majority of the 1,333 deaths among COVID-19 cases in the state.

“We have done a good job at flattening the curve,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “The message, though, to Coloradans is that we are not out of the woods.

“There are a lot of things about this virus that we still don’t know. And we still don’t know about long-term immunity. We’re still in a phase of loosening restrictions but definitely not going back to normal. We need to go slow, and everyone needs to do their part.”

A slide from a May 26, 2020, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presentation showing coronavirus hospitalization rates by age group over time. The chart shows that older people have a significantly higher risk of hospitalization if they contract COVID-19. (Screenshot)

Update: This story was updated at 5:17 p.m. May 26, 2020, to correct that the model is based on a scenario of social distancing by all age groups with extra distancing for older Coloradans.