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Colorado deactivates crisis standards for health care system as COVID cases decline

The standards provided guidance and liability protection during periods of high stress on health care workers

Ambulances sit parked outside Denver Health on March 18, 2021. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado on Thursday deactivated so-called crisis standards of care for the health care system, another sign of the improving pandemic and the state’s move toward handling COVID as a normal part of life.

Crisis standards of care provide guidance and liability protection to health care workers when they are dealing with situations where they don’t have enough resources to treat patients at the level they normally would. The state has a number of crisis standards plans, covering everything from hospice and behavioral health care to care at hospitals.

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The two plans deactivated Thursday deal with how hospitals can operate when staffing levels are strained and how emergency medical services can operate when they are receiving a high demand for their services. The plans, for instance, allowed hospitals to operate with higher staffing ratios than they normally would, and allowed EMS services to focus on being available for emergency calls over time-consuming patient transfers.

The state has never activated the most well-known plan, which covers how hospitals choose which patients receive potentially life-saving treatment when there are not enough resources to go around. Colorado now has no crisis standards of care in effect.

“The decision to deactivate these standards is based on recent modeling and steadily declining cases and hospitalizations, suggesting the immediate strain COVID-19 places on Colorado should continue to decrease in the coming weeks,” Dr. Eric France, the chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement.

The deactivation comes amid increasing hope that the pandemic is relaxing its grip in the state. The average number of new infections being reported per day is the lowest it has been since August. So is the number of people in the hospital with confirmed cases of COVID. The average percentage of COVID tests coming back positive is approaching the state’s goal of no more than 5%.

Hospitals remain very full, with about 90% of the state’s staffed intensive care and acute care beds currently in use. But hospitals say they are starting to feel a little less pressure, though more than a third of hospitals say they are expecting to face a staffing shortage in the coming week.

“We recognize that health care systems continue to face challenges due to chronic staffing issues across the economy, and we thank health care workers for their service protecting Coloradans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” France said in his statement.

Last week, the state’s Combined Hospital Transfer Center, which helps move patients around when space is tight, moved to its lowest level of activation.When Pitkin County’s mask mandate ends on Tuesday, there will no longer be any county-wide mask orders in effect in the state.

State health officials Thursday projected “cautious optimism” about the spread of COVID in the state, noting infections and hospitalizations were decreasing and that an estimated 90% of state residents are now immune to the highly transmissible omicron variant. Most are also protected against severe disease, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said. 

One in 69 Coloradans are infectious, according to state modeling, down significantly from late January, when 1 in every 19 Coloradans — or 5% — were estimated to be infected.

Though the state continues to recommend that people wear masks indoors, lower disease rates suggest Colorado could soon return to a “more normal phase of living,” with residents able to make their own decisions about mask usage, COVID-19 Incident Commander Scott Bookman said. 

“We’re moving to a spot of personal choice coming up, I think, into March,” he said. “For those who are all up to date on their vaccine in their household, I think we’re reaching a point where they are going to be able to go back to living their lives with a bit more normalcy. For those who have vulnerable people in their home, for people who work with vulnerable populations, we may still need to see more precaution.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Shannon Najmabadi contributed to this report.


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