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This transmission electron microscope image shows the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the United States. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. (Provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana)

Colorado has fewer intensive care hospital beds available now than at any other point in the coronavirus pandemic, a state health official said Friday, sounding an alarm about the continued spread of the virus’s highly contagious delta variant.

The state dipped below 200 available ICU hospital beds on Thursday, said Scott Bookman, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 incident commander.

On Friday morning, state data showed 209 available ICU beds. But that still means that 88% of Colorado’s ICU capacity is currently in use, higher than at any other point in the pandemic.

The total number of people hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 is also higher than at any other point other than last winter’s big surge. According to CDPHE, 81% of people now hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against the disease. About 85% of recent COVID deaths in Colorado are among that group.

“The burden of the unvaccinated on our hospitals is profound,” Bookman said.

He said hospitals have begun canceling or postponing elective surgeries and are beginning to implement surge plans, which typically involve converting rooms and entire floors into spaces that can be used to treat coronavirus patients. He said some hospitals are looking at closing outlying clinics in order to have more staff available to work in the main facilities.

These are steps hospitals took last year to deal with anticipated waves of COVID-19 patients, but, with the widespread rollout of vaccines earlier this year, hospitals and other state health leaders had hoped the measures wouldn’t be needed again.

“I cannot stress enough the state that our hospitals are currently in today — the stress they are feeling, the impact that this wave is having on them and the absolute importance of getting vaccinated to end this pandemic,” Bookman said.

The capacity figures measure all patients currently using an ICU bed, not just coronavirus patients. A state health spokesman said last week that the state is not specifically tracking how many ICU patients are there because of the coronavirus. So it is unclear how much the delta-driven surge in coronavirus hospitalizations is contributing to the ICU bed crunch. Summer is typically the busy season in Colorado ICUs, with incidents of accidental and violent trauma typically higher than they are during other seasons.

But Bookman said this is part of the problem with the current surge: This time it’s not happening while people’s lives are effectively paused due to the pandemic.

“The difference between this wave and all previous waves is that Coloradans have returned to their normal lives,” he said.

A strain on ICU capacity won’t just impact the care that COVID patients receive. It affects the care that everyone receives because ICU beds are also going to be needed for people injured in car crashes or for people who just had a necessary surgery. 

State officials’ frustration with the new surge was evident Friday during a news conference with Gov. Jared Polis.

“We would not be anything close to hospital capacity or crisis or ICU limits if everybody was vaccinated,” Polis said, calling many of the state’s current coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths “needless.”


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.


Polis has previously said he may reimpose statewide restrictions — such as a mask mandate — if the state’s hospital capacity is overwhelmed. On Friday, he said the state isn’t there yet and that he planned no immediate action to stop the surge in infections.

“We will continue to watch the data on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Some counties, including Boulder and San Miguel, have reimposed mask mandates for their jurisdictions.

About 75% of those eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine in Colorado have now received at least one dose, Polis said. The state has also seen an uptick in vaccine doses administered in recent weeks, suggesting that the ferocity of the current wave of infections combined with the increasing number of vaccine mandates have had an impact.

But Polis said it is disappointing to see that a quarter of those eligible still have not gotten vaccinated.

“We really find ourselves at a unique point in this pandemic,” Polis said. “We know how to end it. But we need the will to do it.”

John Ingold

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...