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Ethan Flores, 14, receives an initial dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, August 11, 2021, at a Denver Health mobile vaccine clinic. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday issued his most urgent plea in months asking Coloradans to get vaccinated against coronavirus in order to break a continued surge in hospitalizations that has left the state with only 120 available intensive care beds.

Looking into the camera that was live streaming his news conference, Polis spoke directly to unvaccinated Coloradans, saying: “We want you here. We want you to be healthy. Please get vaccinated.”

More than 1,100 people are hospitalized in Colorado with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highest number since last December. What is different this time, though, is the state has largely reopened, meaning hospitals are also filling up with victims of car accidents and other day-to-day events.

During normal times, the state’s intensive care units would operate at about 68% full, said Scott Bookman, the state health department’s COVID-19 incident commander. Now, though, Colorado’s hospital ICUs are operating at around 90% of capacity, running the risk that they could be overwhelmed if the surge of coronavirus cases continues.

Bookman said hospitals are postponing necessary but non-emergent surgeries — preserving capacity but delaying valuable medical care to patients who need it. Polis said the state is ready to implement crisis standards of care plans if needed, a move that would authorize hospitals to prioritize who receives treatment when their capacity is overrun.

“We are nearing the capacity of our hospitals,” Polis said.

Bookman echoed that concern, saying, “The trajectory of hospitalizations continues to go up, making me even more concerned about what this is going to do to the capacity of our hospitals to be able to take care of patients.”

This chart from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows trends in coronavirus hospitalizations as of Oct. 21. (Screenshot by John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

About 79% of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. And those who are hospitalized and unvaccinated also skew younger. The average age of an unvaccinated person who is hospitalized in Colorado right now is 57, compared with an average age of 73 for the vaccinated.

In addition to urging unvaccinated people to get the shot, Polis also said older Coloradans should receive a booster shot. He cited newly released data from vaccine maker Pfizer showing that a booster shot of its vaccine was more than 95% effective at preventing symptomatic cases of COVID-19.

The Federal Food and Drug Administration this week approved booster shots for people who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, to go along with a previous approval of boosters for Pfizer recipients. An expert panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still needs to give its OK.

Pfizer booster shots have been authorized for all people ages 65 or older, along with people who have high-risk medical conditions or who work in high-risk settings. The Moderna approval is expected to follow similar guidelines. Boosters for Johnson & Johnson are expected to be available for all people who received the vaccine. People with weakened immune systems are already eligible for a booster shot regardless of which vaccine they received.

The rising levels of concern in Colorado stand in contrast to what is happening in the nation at large. Across the United States, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are falling.

During the previous several months, while the virus’ delta variant tore through health care systems around the country, Colorado had managed to have some of the lowest hospitalization and case rates in the country. Now, Colorado has the 10th-highest infection rate and 20th-highest hospitalization rate among all states, according to The New York Times’ case tracker.

Since the beginning of October, about 20 people a day in Colorado have died with COVID-19. As recently as this summer, that number was around four or five people a day. More than 8,000 people in Colorado have now died due to the coronavirus.

Thursday’s news conference was notable for the language Polis used in hoping to prevent more deaths. Repeatedly, he urged unvaccinated people to show care for themselves by getting the shot. Slightly less than 30% of Coloradans who are old enough to get vaccinated are not fully immunized.

“Never in my wildest imagination did I think there would be Coloradans that didn’t want to protect themselves,” Polis said, recalling the day the first vaccine doses arrived in the state.

He later added: “Show that you love yourself. Show that you support your friends and family that want you to be here for many years to come. Get protected. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.”

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...