Gov. Jared Polis on Monday warned Coloradans to brace for a worsening COVID-19 situation driven by spread of the more contagious delta variant, which has led in recent days to a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the state.
“We expect it to get worse before it gets better,” Polis said during a news conference at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver.
Polis’ somber, disappointed tone comes after weeks of falling coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Colorado. He said that the virus has thrown the state another curveball and that it’s “tough to face another peak when we thought that the last peak was behind us.”
More than 95% of new cases in Colorado are believed to be among the delta variant, which was first identified in India. The variant is driving new cases and hospitalizations across the U.S., prompting dire warnings from public health officials and politicians.
The delta variant, according to a Centers for Disease and Control document obtained by The New York Times, is more transmissible than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS Ebola and the common cold. It is also as contagious as chickenpox.
About 360 people were hospitalized because of coronavirus on Monday, up about 100 over last week.
“We’ve seen, really, an immediate jump over the last week,” Polis said.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s top epidemiologist, said Colorado is seeing a “pretty dramatic” increase in cases, largely among unvaccinated people. Between July 1 and July 24, unvaccinated people accounted for 80% of cases, 87% of hospitalization and 92% of deaths in Colorado.
Herlihy said that while there have been cases among vaccinated people, those people are much less likely to get severely ill or die from coronavirus.
More cases in vaccinated people are happening among people who received the Pfizer or Johnson & Johnsons vaccine than those who received the Moderna vaccine. The state is investigating why.
“This is something that I want to investigate further,” Herlihy said, speculating that the timing of when the vaccines were administered could factor into the trend.
Herlihy said people need to calculate their risk when deciding whether to visit crowded places. Being vaccinated is the best protection, she said, but mask wearing and social distancing remain important tools.
“As rates increase,” Herlihy said, “we certainly are going to see increased risk with individuals attending large gatherings.”
The governor said Colorado is still faring better than other states but that people need to be vigilant.
“Our goal is really to prevent Colorado from going down this path” that other states are on, Polis said.
The governor is hopeful this latest jump in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations will be far less worse than previous spikes in Colorado. But he said if the state doesn’t reach an 80% vaccination rate among eligible people, coronavirus hospitalizations could rise to 800 or 900.
The governor said the state’s hospital capacity has always driven his decision making around statewide pandemic restrictions. Right now, the capacity isn’t threatened and so he doesn’t think new restrictions are necessary.
“I don’t see a scenario where we’re likely to exceed our hospital capacity,” Polis said.
One sign that the situation is worsening in Colorado: the governor and his staff were wearing masks during Monday’s news conference. They had mostly ditched face coverings for several months.
Also on Monday, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on announced that he is requiring all city employees to get vaccinated, as well as health care workers and teachers, by mid September. Polis last week announced that he’s requiring state employees to get vaccinated before the end of September or subject themselves to regular testing.
“Don’t ignore all of this,” Polis said. “Don’t panic.”
The governor said the best thing Coloradans can do to protect themselves against COVID-19 is get vaccinated.
Polis announced one silver lining on Monday: More than 70% of Coloradans eligible to be inoculated against the disease, calculated using data from the state demographer, have received at least a first dose of vaccine. People 12 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine.