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Colorado’s omicron-driven COVID wave appears to have crested — but not everywhere in the state

While mountain communities and the Denver metro area are seeing cases fall, parts of southern and western Colorado continue to see increasing infection rates.

Health care workers for the Gunnison County Health and Human Services Department administer COVID-19 tests in below zero temperatures at a mobile testing site set up outside of Crested Butte, Colorado on December 17, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s record-breaking wave of COVID infections caused by the virus’s omicron variant appears to have crested, state officials said Thursday.

Reports of new infections began declining about a week ago, as did the percentage of tests coming back positive.

“We have multiple ways of looking at data to try to estimate if the decrease we are seeing is a real decrease,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said. “At this point, I do believe that we are seeing a real decline in cases in the state. So (we’re) feeling cautiously optimistic that we have now turned the corner with our omicron surge.”

Herlihy warned, though, that the decline is not uniform statewide and that, even as cases are falling, the level of infection in the state remains much higher than it has at any other point in the pandemic. About 8,000 people a day are testing positive for COVID-19 across the state, and, as of Tuesday, about 27% of tests taken are still coming back positive.

As Colorado Governor Jared Polis, left, listens, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, makes a point about the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state during a news conference on the state’s efforts against the coronavirus Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Denver.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The decline was first noticed in Colorado’s mountain resort communities — places that also got hit with the omicron wave first. The wave then spread to the Denver metro area, and Herlihy said that is also where it next began to recede. Those two areas account for much of the state’s overall decline in new infections in recent days.

Areas such as Pueblo and Mesa counties and the Eastern Plains continue to see increasing case rates, according to state data. Rates in the San Luis Valley have flattened but not yet begun to decline, she said.

“There are going to be some variable trends across the state,” Herlihy said.

The trends match what is happening nationwide, as the rapid expansion of omicron-caused COVID infections appears to be now rapidly contracting. That pattern has also been seen in other parts of the world that saw omicron earlier, including in South Africa, where it was first identified.

Hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 have also begun to level off — Thursday’s numbers are actually a little bit down from Wednesday’s.

“I’d like to see this number continue to go down to feel confident that we are in a true downward trajectory for hospitalizations,” she said. “But the timing is right.”

That state also believes that the number of health care workers who are out sick with COVID is declining, leading to an increase in capacity at hospitals. Just a week ago, emergency physicians in Colorado sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis saying their hospitals were so strained by patient loads and staff absenteeism that Polis needed to authorize hospitals to operate under crisis triage standards. Polis later rejected that idea.

On Thursday, state COVID-19 incident commander Scott Bookman said has seen “a bit of an upward trend in the number of available staffed beds.”

He called the trend “a tale of cautious optimism.”

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