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Seventh graders take nasal swabs to test for COVID-19 on Feb. 1, 2022 at Aurora Science & Tech Middle School. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Coronavirus infections appear to be on the march in Colorado.

In numbers that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported this week, 112 people are hospitalized with a COVID infection, up from 99 last week. Last week’s increase in hospitalizations — to 99 from 77 — was the largest one-week jump in months.

The number of people newly admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 increased by 11 this week compared with last. The percentage of COVID tests coming back positive from the state’s sentinel lab network is rising, now at 13%, as are signals from wastewater surveillance.

“The trends are very similar to what we’re seeing nationally,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, referencing rising numbers of COVID infections across the country.

The number of infections reported are also increasing but likely do not tell a complete tale. The state reported 1,920 new cases this week, up from last week’s 1,754. At-home testing — or people choosing not to test at all — means we are probably missing a whole bunch of cases.

But there’s another reason this COVID surge is different from those in the past and might be flying under the radar.

It’s not about the virus, it’s about the virulence

Even with 112 people in the hospital — the most since early May — Colorado remains near pandemic lows for hospitalizations. At this time last year, there were 195 people hospitalized. In late August 2021, there were more than 800. And at the all-time peak, in early December 2020, there were more than 1,800.

Among those hospitalized, roughly 45% are there for a reason other than COVID. In other words, their COVID infections aren’t believed to be causing their hospitalization.

Herlihy said the lower effective severity seen so far in this wave is likely due to stronger levels of population immunity, both through vaccination and through prior infection. Even as the virus continues to mutate and spit out new variants, it is a much more familiar foe to our immune system.

Some of those variants may do a better job at evading that existing immunity and make us sick. But, overall, the effective virulence of the virus — i.e., how vicious it is — is diminished.

Herlihy said the EG.5 variant is most common in Colorado right now, and the state has yet to see the BA.2.86 variant that has some epidemiologists a bit concerned due to traits in its genetic code that could make it better at evading pre-existing immunity. Both of those, though, live within the omicron variant family tree, which has been around for a while.

“Omicron has been with us for a very long time now,” Herlihy said.

This artificially colorized image shows a cell infected with the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. (Provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Do you need a fall COVID vaccine booster?

So far, the federal government has not issued a broad call for people to get a COVID booster, but that could soon change. (People who are over 65 or who are immunocompromised are eligible for a booster as needed, though.)

An updated vaccine formula could be approved as soon as next month. Herlihy said that formula will be based on a specific omicron subvariant known as XBB.1.5 that was prominent in the U.S. this summer. (The EG.5 subvariant is closely related; the BA.2.86 subvariant is less closely related.)

Herlihy said the new formula’s ability to better target more recent versions of coronavirus mean that people should be patient when it comes to seeking a booster shot.

“At this point, most people should probably wait until that new vaccine comes out in September or October,” she said.

Do you need to start wearing a mask again?

In the meantime, the 112 people in the hospital right now battling COVID stand as a testament to the virus’ continued ability to do harm.

Herlihy said people should be mindful of the COVID upswing and be extra-vigilant, and those who are older or have underlying medical conditions should be especially so. Stay home if you’re sick. Get tested. Seek out antiviral treatments to help manage the infection.

Herlihy did not specifically call for people to begin wearing masks in public but has previously said it’s a good idea if people want extra protection. In areas where hospital admissions levels are low, as they are in all but five Colorado counties currently, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks be worn only on public transportation. Otherwise, the agency advises, “People may choose to mask at any time.”

Chaffee, Lake, Logan, Phillips and Sedgwick counties are all currently listed in the “medium” category for hospital admissions — though those designations can change quickly in counties with small populations. In areas with medium-level hospital admissions, the CDC recommends that people who are at increased risk from COVID to wear masks in public.

Colorado often sees COVID infections increase in late summer, with now through November typically the state’s busiest COVID season. But Herlihy said it’s unclear whether the state will follow a similar pattern this year or whether the current wave will fizzle out quickly.

COVID may still be a pandemic, but it’s one that looks a lot different than it did just a few months ago. 

“I think it’s challenging to predict what the next couple of months are going to look like,” Herlihy said.

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...