Little has been consistent during the coronavirus pandemic in Colorado, but this has: Fall is COVID season.
In both 2020 and 2021, as kids returned to classes and pumpkin-spiced lattes emerged from their caffeinated hidey-holes, COVID cases began to rise in the state. By this time last year, reports of new coronavirus infections had already been climbing for more than a month. In 2020, infections began rising in the first week of September. In both years, the trends peaked in November in Colorado, part of a mysterious seasonality to the rhythm of the virus.
But it’s possible that this year, just maybe, will defy the trend, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. Samet, who is part of a team that tracks data to create projections about the pandemic’s course, said he isn’t seeing any worrisome signs in the numbers he’s following.
“Everything is going in the right direction,” he said. “Hospitalizations are down. Wastewater levels are down. Percent positivity (of COVID tests) is down. So as we head into the fall, we are in good shape.”
The reason Samet feels reasonably confident that these positive trends will continue is that the state has been taking a beating from the omicron gang of coronavirus variants for the past nine months and, before that, dealt with a punishing wave of infections caused by the delta variant.
Those successive waves mean a lot of folks in Colorado have been exposed or been infected in the past year, giving the state a level of immunity that is also bolstered by new vaccinations for young kids and booster shots for older adults.
In Samet’s view, that level of community immunity should be able to stave off the fall surge that Colorado saw in 2020 and 2021 — at least for a couple more months, if not longer.
“Where the prediction becomes uncertain is when we look out beyond early to mid-October and the what-if a new variant arrives, which is always a concern,” Samet said. “We keep generating them.”
Colorado reported about 6,200 new coronavirus infections last week, a decline of more than 1,000 cases from the week prior. There were 464 patients admitted to the hospital with coronavirus infections last week, down by about 4% from the week before.
According to state data, 53% of those hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated — though that number doesn’t tell the full story because only about 63% of the people currently in the hospital with COVID are there because of their COVID symptoms. The state does not provide a breakdown of the vaccination status of those in the hospital specifically due to COVID.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said last week the state is seeing “a sustained decline in cases.” The infections that are occurring are largely due to the omicron BA.5 variant, she said. But Colorado has seen newer variants pop up, as well.
The state has confirmed a smattering of infections from the BA.4.6 variant, and the BA.2.75 variant has been detected in wastewater samples, indicating it may be spreading, as well. Samet said those variants bear watching. But, so far, they haven’t shown signs of being monsters, he said.
“There’s not a delta-type situation on the horizon right now,” he said, referencing the delta variant, which gained steam at this time last year.
And Samet said there’s another reason for optimism this fall: Just because cases have surged the previous two years doesn’t mean they’re destined to again this year. Yes, as kids go back to school and cooler weather means people begin to move indoors more, opportunities for transmission increase. But there’s also a lot we don’t know about how and when COVID spreads. After all, while the pandemic seems interminable, our studying of COVID has been relatively brief.
“We really only have two falls under our belt,” Samet said. “I would be careful about generalizing.”