About 500 people remain hospitalized in Colorado with COVID-19 even though the pandemic seems to be receding, and health officials say almost all of the patients share a common trait: They’re unvaccinated.
“We’ve taken a deep look at this,” Dr. JP Valin, chief clinical officer at SCL Health, told Colorado Public Radio. “Ninety-five percent of the patients who have been hospitalized since February are unvaccinated.”
After more than a year of dealing with the pandemic, the near-constant churn of unvaccinated patients is wearing on front-line doctors and nurses, and their frustration arises in part because at least some of the cases may have been avoidable.
“We are tired,” said Dr. Sandeep Vijan of Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo. “We’ve been doing this for a year. We are emotionally tired; tired of seeing people die. We are physically tired.”
COVID-19 vaccines now in use and available to just about anyone 12 and older provide near universal protection against the illness and even greater protection against severe cases leading to hospitalizations. Doctors in hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in the state can’t recall a single death of a vaccinated person.
Still, health officials are struggling to convince some groups to get the vaccine, particularly younger people and minorities.
In the week of May 23, nearly 19% of hospitalized patients were 39 and younger. That’s up from Nov. 22 when the age group made up just 12% of the patient caseload.
Meanwhile, Hispanic and Black residents continue to be hospitalized at disproportionately high rates, according to state health officials.
Hispanics make up about 20% of the state’s population, but in recent weeks have made up roughly 28% of those hospitalized. Black residents account for nearly 4% of the state’s population but have been hospitalized in recent weeks at double that figure.
Maggie Gomez, who chairs the state’s Health Equity Commission, said underlying obstacles often prevent access or delay people getting health care, including vaccinations. Those include housing and employment issues, access to transportation, language barriers and immigration status.
Dr. Steve Brizendine, chief of the medical staff at Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton, said even when some patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, they are convinced the disease is not real. He recalled a patient who yelled at staff who were wearing masks, saying, “There’s no such thing as COVID,” only to have a deathbed conversion.
“All of us here, working on the front line, taking care of these patients that are critically ill, saving them, some of them dying, and for people to feel that this is not a true virus, this is not a true pandemic, was highly disappointing, highly disappointing, discouraging,” he said.
Health officials are trying to get the word out about the efficacy of the vaccine, noting that counties and communities with the highest vaccination rates are seeing the lowest spread of the virus, and vice versa. But they are worried Colorado will likely see a spotty, uneven pandemic in the months ahead, where trouble keeps popping up among the unvaccinated.