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Gov. Jared Polis speaks at Ridge View on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Watkins. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he is preparing to expand the state’s hospital bed capacity, urge cities to require that people who attend large indoor events are vaccinated and speed up the distribution of coronavirus vaccine boosters as COVID case rates and hospitalizations in the state reach what he called a “crisis.”

Polis, speaking Wednesday to a group of medical advisers, said he also wants to hasten efforts to eliminate regulatory hurdles around the strained health care workforce and expand the use of monoclonal antibody treatments, which can reduce hospitalizations. 

“If we see hospitalizations continue to increase, this is the playbook,” Polis told his Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee.

Polis said the steps he took in recent weeks to address rising hospitalizations — pausing cosmetic procedures, requesting federal health care teams and managing patient transfers — are “not going to be enough.”

More than 1,400 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado as of Tuesday, the highest level since December 2020. Seventy-nine percent of those hospitalized are not vaccinated.

Ninety-three percent of the state’s intensive care hospital beds are being used. 

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s top epidemiologist, said Colorado’s hospital capacity is at an all-time pandemic low, due both to the flood of COVID patients and the high rates of patients seeking treatment for other reasons. If non-COVID hospitalizations hold steady in the coming weeks, Herlihy said the state estimates that hospitals can hold about 2,000 COVID patients.

Current models predict that COVID hospitalizations will peak higher than that in mid-to-late-December. On the current trajectory, Herlihy said, the state could see more than 2,250 COVID hospitalizations by the end of the year. 

If the state increases its uptake of vaccine booster shots, hospitalizations will peak lower and sooner but are still expected to exceed 2,000.

A screenshot from a presentation given by Dr. Rachel Herlihy on Wednesday.

“Booster doses emerge as a really important strategy to decrease the demand on our health care system,” she said.

Colorado’s case rates right now are highest among children ages 6 to 11. That age group recently became eligible for vaccination. Around 13,000 kids ages 5 to 11 — about 2.8% of the total population in that age group — have so far received a first dose of vaccine, according to state figures.

The governor has rebuffed calls for him to reinstate a statewide mask mandate or take other steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado, which has one of the nation’s highest case rates.

The last time Colorado’s COVID hospitalizations were this high the state shut down indoor dining at restaurants, outlawed personal gatherings and had an indoor mask-wearing mandate.

Polis said on Twitter that things have changed this time around. 

“The big difference now: 62.1% of total population is fully vaccinated and 86.9% of those most vulnerable 65+,” Polis said on Twitter. “Sadly, even tragically, too many Coloradans haven’t yet chosen to get protected.”

Polis explained that for the vaccinated, the risk of contracting COVID and being hospitalized is much lower now than it was during the last spike in cases and hospitalizations.

In terms of expanding hospital capacity, Polis said he wants to work with health care systems to activate hospital floors that have been closed and repurpose parts of hospitals to care for COVID patients. 

Polis lauded Ball Arena for requiring that visitors be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of attending an event there. He wants to see that kind of policy enacted elsewhere.

“We need to make indoor events safer,” he said. “We can’t afford superspreader events.”

The virus could still spread at a large, indoor events where everyone is vaccinated, Polis said, “but it’s a very different characteristic of how effective the delta variant is at seeking out and infecting the unvaccinated.”

When it comes to regulatory changes for the health care workforce, the governor is ordering his administration to look into how to quickly get retired and out-of-state nurses working in the state’s hospitals. He also wants to temporarily remove rules around health care workers’ scope of practice, allowing them to care for patients they wouldn’t normally see.

In addition to expanding the number of beds available in hospitals, the state is also working to open up more beds in rehab and long-term care facilities. Doing so will allow hospitals to discharge patients faster.

Dr. Daniel Pastula, a member of the state Board of Health who serves on the governor’s advisory committee, said the difficulty of finding places to send patients who no longer need to be in the hospital but are too sick to go home is a problem that’s keeping hospital beds filled.

“That’s actually been a bit of a bottleneck,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander, agreed and said the state is working with long-term care facilities to help them open up unused rooms and shuttered wings.

During earlier COVID surges, the state set up field hospitals that could be opened and staffed quickly in the event that hospitals became overwhelmed. But it closed those facilities as the pandemic wore on, without them ever taking in patients. Now, Bookman said officials believe it will be better and easier to use existing infrastructure, rather than re-establishing the field hospitals.

Bookman said the state is also working to secure contracts for staffing all the new beds coming online.

“That’s going to be a big lift,” he said. “We’re moving as rapidly as we can. But that will require an enormous amount of staffing contracts coming in.”

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

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul