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COVID-19 infections could be plateauing in Colorado, but there’s still much uncertainty

COVID-19 is circulating at relatively high levels in Colorado right now, but what might happen next is anyone’s guess.

As of Wednesday, the number of new cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive appeared to be leveling off, though hospitalizations rose again this week. It’s too early to say if those are true trends, though, and the presence of still more versions of omicron in the state could push the numbers up again.

Coloradans should assume there’s a good chance that if they’re in a crowd, someone around them is contagious with the virus, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Since more people are using at-home tests, it’s hard to get an accurate count of cases, but all the data suggests the virus is widespread, she said.

“There’s probably a considerable number of people who are infectious,” she said.

The positivity rate, which is typically the first measure to signal change when the virus is taking a different trajectory, has plateaued in the last few days, with the seven-day average hovering around 9.2%. It’s too early to know if that’s a sign of things to come, though, Carlton said.

Cases rose again, though not as steeply as in recent weeks. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 11,273 new infections in the week ending Sunday, which was about a 10% increase over the previous week.

Hospitalizations also rose again. The state health department reported 166 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, up from 144 a week earlier. Hospitalizations typically lag behind the positivity rate and cases, so any change would take a few weeks to show up.

Outbreaks rose for a fourth week, with almost all of the increase coming from nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The number of long-term care facilities reporting outbreaks rose from 115 to 165. Outbreaks may be rising faster in those facilities because they require frequent testing and have to report to the state after only two linked cases. The threshold for most other settings is five cases.

Nationwide, cases appear to be plateauing, but that conceals regional variation. New infections seem to be falling in the Northeast, but rising in parts of the South, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

It’s more difficult to forecast what the virus might do now because of uncertainty about both the BA.2.12.1 variant — which took over as the dominant variant nationwide this week — and the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, which limited data suggests may be able to outcompete BA.2.12.1, Carlton said. Data from the United Kingdom suggests BA.4 and BA.5 may be better than previous versions of omicron at infecting people who survived previous versions of the virus, but it’s not clear how much better they are at it, she said.

The quick succession of new variants “does lead to enormous challenges in understanding what may happen next,” she said.

The most recent data in Colorado, from May 8, showed BA.2 still was found in about 57% of sequenced samples, with BA.2.12.1 accounting for 39%, BA.4 for about 3% and BA.5 for about 0.3%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s modeling suggests that BA.2.12.1 has likely taken the top spot in the last two weeks, though.

Communications from the state health department suggest they’re not banking on an extended plateau in infections. On Tuesday, the agency encouraged people who test positive for COVID-19 to consider using telehealth to find out quickly if they should take medications to reduce their odds of severe disease, and it will start sending text messages about getting second booster shots starting Thursday.

Most COVID-19 treatments have to be taken within about a week of symptoms starting, meaning a delay in getting an appointment could make them ineffective. The state health department encouraged people who can’t quickly get an in-person appointment to check with their health care provider or their insurance company first, then try covid19.colorado.gov/telehealth-and-nurselines. Not all providers are part of any given insurance network, however, so it’s possible patients could face significant bills if they don’t check carefully.

Coloradans 50 and older who are eligible for a fourth shot and haven’t received one will soon start getting emails and text messages reminding them to schedule an appointment. Last week, the CDC put out a strong recommendation that people who are at least 50 or have compromised immune systems get a fourth shot at least four months after their third dose. Previously, it said those groups could get another booster if they wanted, but didn’t say they should do so.

The CDC also recommended that children 5 to 11 receive a third dose. While younger children are at a lower risk of severe COVID-19 than teens and adults, they do face some risk, which the CDC found was comparable to their risk of hospitalization or death in a moderately severe year for influenza. Their risk of hospitalization increased in late 2021 and early 2022, perhaps because of the omicron variant.

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