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The emergency room entrance to Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, photographed on Oct. 22, 2019. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Hospital Association announced Wednesday that it is activating Tier 3 of the state’s Combined Hospital Transfer Center.

How bad is that? Hospitals didn’t have to activate Tier 3, the highest level, during even the busiest months of last winter’s COVID surge. But what the hospital association calls “monumental strain” on the health care system caused by the most recent spike in coronavirus cases has led to the unprecedented activation.

The new level means the transfer center, or CHTC, which helps move patients around from crowded hospitals to less-crowded ones, will operate on a statewide basis. Previously, it had operated regionally or within big health systems. But, as COVID hospitalizations continue to climb in Colorado, that’s no longer enough.

“This is an extraordinary step taken by the state’s hospitals and health systems,” Dr. Darlene Tad-y, the hospital association’s vice president of clinical affairs, said in a statement. “… Activating Tier 3 of the CHTC should send a clear message to Coloradans: our health care system is in jeopardy of being overwhelmed.”

Gov. Jared Polis helped clear the way for the activation earlier this week, when he issued an executive order giving state authorities and hospitals the ability to halt admissions to full hospitals and to transfer patients to hospitals with space without first obtaining the patients’ consent.

“This executive order is particularly urgent at this moment in the pandemic because statewide hospital capacity is less than 10%,” Polis wrote in the executive order.

The average daily count of new coronavirus infections has reached its highest level this year, as have hospitalizations. About 90% of the state’s acute care hospital beds are currently in use, as are about 92% of the intensive care beds. Both are pandemic-era highs.

Though Colorado has handled a greater number of coronavirus hospitalizations before, that came during a period last year when people were still more likely to be staying home and observing social distancing. A return of hospitalizations due to car crashes or falls — or due to problems that got worse due to delayed medical care during the pandemic — have made hospitals less equipped to handle another COVID surge. The coming flu season creates even more worry, and state health leaders have been strongly urging every Coloradan to get a flu shot this year.

About 80% of the people currently hospitalized with coronavirus are unvaccinated, according to state data.

“Our frontline health care workers and hospitals need everyone’s help to get through this,” Tad-y said in her statement. “Please continue to wash your hands, wear a mask, and watch your distance when out in public, and, if you’re able, get a COVID-19 vaccine.”

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 Gazette and the Rocky Mountain News, among other publications. He also interned one summer in the public relations office at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where he got to sit on an elephant's knee and get his photo taken.

John was part of The Denver Post's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news team for its coverage of a shooting at an Aurora movie theater, and, in 2015, he was a Pulitzer finalist for a series he wrote on parents whose children suffer from a rare form of epilepsy and the help they hoped to find through Colorado's medical marijuana system.

Email: Twitter: @johningold