Saturday marks two years since what was then called the “novel coronavirus” was first discovered in Colorado.
It’s been a long haul for everyone, but especially for the health care and public health workers on the front lines. For them, these past two years have essentially been a mass-casualty emergency that refuses to let up, and it has placed added stress on their personal lives and families, as well.
Looking back, Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander, says this is one of the lessons learned during the pandemic — the importance of taking care of the people fighting a pandemic and of also taking care of the people who take care of them.
Bookman has felt it in his own life. His son is nearly 11.
“Two years,” Bookman notes, “is a long time in the life of a 10-year-old. I’ve tried to be as present as possible in those moments that we have.”
“We have literally been working around the clock,” he said. “I think it speaks to the importance of really good public health preparedness as we move forward making sure that our health departments are staffed in a way that we have sustainable ongoing structures.”
As the state transitions away from its emergency management approach to the pandemic, Bookman and others are reflecting on how the state did over these past two years and how it can do better in the future.
Colorado has had more than 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least 12,556 people have died due to the virus, according to data drawn from death certificates. That death toll is greater than the population of Fort Morgan or Castle Pines.
But by most public health metrics — such as infections, deaths, testing and vaccinations — Colorado has fared well compared to the rest of the country. Bookman partly attributes that to what he described as the state’s aggressive and data-driven approach to fighting the virus.
“As we’ve learned, we have adapted to this,” he said. “I think that our response has really been nimble, and we’ve worked really hard to meet people where they are.”
Ultimately, though, he said Colorado’s relative success is down to Colorado’s people for following public health guidance and getting vaccinated. Public health has to be a partnership between the public and health agencies, he said.
That partnership is something the state may have to rely upon in the future, if new variants flare up or if immunity wanes. But Bookman said, after looking at modeling data and assessing what is believed to be the high level of immunity for the moment in the population, the state felt it was important “to give people permission to move forward.” But he hedged on his own mood.
“Cautious optimism is probably as far as you’re going to get me,” he said.
That is perhaps because his COVID-fighting days are far from over. Bookman, who is also the head of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response, said the state is planning to keep up robust surveillance of the coronavirus and will be ready to act when needed.
“This,” he said, “is the work of my team forever.”
Here are five charts that show how Colorado has fared during two years of the pandemic.
Colorado ranks better-than-average nationally
Colorado has the 17th-lowest case rate among all states and the District of Columbia, and it has the 10th-lowest death rate.
The state ranks 19th for the percentage of the eligible population to have received at least one dose of vaccine — and it ranks higher for the vaccination rate just among adults.
The state is 20th for the per capita number of COVID tests performed.
There are big differences between counties
Jackson County has recorded about one confirmed coronavirus infection for every eight people. In Crowley County, it’s greater than one out of every two people.
At least three counties have not recorded a single coronavirus death, according to CDPHE data. Five counties have recorded COVID deaths at a per capita rate higher than 500 deaths per every 100,000 people.
And while San Juan County has a vaccination rate over 95%, in 19 counties, less than half of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.
COVID became the state’s third-leading cause of death
Cancer and heart disease have long been the state’s top two leading causes of death. That didn’t change during the pandemic.
COVID was the third-leading cause of death in both 2020 and 2021. In fact, more people died of COVID in 2021 than did in 2020.
One important note: CDPHE is still finalizing the cause-specific numbers for 2021 for this analysis. That means the numbers shown here will likely increase, and it helps explain why the number reported here for COVID deaths differs from the number the state has reported elsewhere.
Older populations have been hit harder
People age 80 or older make up only about 2% of the state’s confirmed COVID cases. But they make up 43% of the state’s deaths.
People 60 and older make up nearly 84% of the state’s COVID deaths.
Disparities still exist — especially in vaccinations
Latinos in Colorado make up roughly 22% of the state’s population, but they make up less than 12% of the population of those vaccinated — evidence of the racial and ethnic disparities seen since the vaccine first rolled out.
These numbers, though, are confounded by a large chunk of the vaccinated population — 9% — not reporting a race or ethnicity. The state believes most of those people may be Latino, meaning, while it still exists, the gap may not be quite as large as shown here.