Colorado hospitals took new steps Wednesday to help prevent becoming overwhelmed by a surge in coronavirus patients as current statewide hospitalizations for COVID-19 are expected to surpass the April peak in the next two or three days.
The move came as worsening conditions led the state to impose stricter public health rules on three more metro counties — Boulder, Broomfield and Jefferson — and Denver officials confirmed they’re considering imposing a citywide curfew in an effort to avoid a stay-at-home order.
Hospitals still have beds available statewide, but some facilities have turned to back-up plans after briefly hitting capacity in their intensive-care units, or ICUs. On Wednesday, the Colorado Hospital Association announced the creation of a hub — called the Combined Hospital Transfer Center — that hospitals and health systems can call on for help if they hit capacity and need to transfer patients to other facilities.
“If we keep spreading this virus, it’s going to be a very, very serious time for our state,” said Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the state Department of Public Health and Environment, during a news briefing.
On Wednesday, 847 people were hospitalized statewide with confirmed COVID-19 infections, the highest number since April 24. The number of hospitalizations in Colorado peaked at 888 on April 14, according to data from the health department.
As hospitalizations have increased and their ICUs filled up, some facilities have rescheduled surgeries, declined accepting out-of-state patients or moved people to other units, said Julie Lonborg, senior vice president of communications and media relations for the hospital association.
The Combined Hospital Transfer Center will be activated if the number of people that need to be transferred surpasses hospitals’ capacity, which is determined by both the number of patients and staff available to treat them.
When a hospital has reached capacity or cannot provide the appropriate level of care for patients, the facility will call the center, which will then find a hospital in the region or state that can assist, according to the news release.
“This will allow us to respond rapidly to capacity issues that a city or region of Colorado may face and to ensure that we are fully utilizing the capacity of our state’s entire hospital system,” said Dr. Darlene Tad-y, vice president of clinical affairs, in a statement.
If transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues at the current level, then Colorado’s hospitals will exceed capacity in their intensive-care units by late December — or sooner if people gather during the holidays, said Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health.
“All the data support that the epidemic is worsening,” he said, adding, “Holiday travel will be more risky as a result. Contacts among people not in the same households should be minimized.”
Both the state’s rate of positive test results and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have jumped in recent weeks. This means transmission of the disease is increasing and that the rise in news cases is not simply due to more testing.
Colorado recorded 2,600 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, according to the Department of Public Health and Environment.
The percentage of tests coming back positive over the past seven days is 9.31%. The World Health Organization recommends that the positivity rate stay below 5%.
State health officials cautioned that more counties could move into the two highest — orange and red— levels on the state’s COVID-19 dial, which means they would face stricter restrictions in an effort to curtail the spread of the disease.
Denver and Adams counties moved to the second-highest level last week, meaning that if transmission of the disease doesn’t slow, the next step would be a stay-at-home order.
Few other details about the possibility of a curfew were immediately available, but sources told The Denver Post additional information would come in the next few days.
“Everything is on the table,” said Theresa Marchetta, spokeswoman for Mayor Michael Hancock. “Hospitalizations have skyrocketed.”
Hancock “desperately does not want a stay-at-home order,” Marchetta said.
It’s not clear whether other municipalities will follow Denver in considering a curfew, although state public health officials said curfews are one way local governments can act before moving to a stay-at-home order.
“The next step is stay-at-home and so the expectation is that the leaders in these counties at (the orange level) will do as much as they possibly they can to avoid staying at home,” France said.
On Wednesday, local public health officials announced Boulder and Broomfield counties will move to the second-highest level of restrictions — the orange level — on Friday, while Jefferson County will follow suit on Monday. The reason for the restrictions, which will cap most business capacity at 25%, follows the surge in cases, hospitalizations and test positivity.
“This is devastating, especially because we know that we can prevent the transmission of this virus and this change will impact our businesses severely, as well as our social and emotional health,” said Jeff Zayach, executive director of Boulder County Public Health, in a statement.
Concerns about testing abilities
Demand for testing also has increased, with community test sites in the metro area experiencing long lines and closing early as they reach capacity. On Wednesday, public health officials announced the Stride Community COVID-19 testing site at JeffCo Stadium reached capacity before 9 a.m. — less than an hour after the location opened.
“We are concerned about capacity of all levels,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, “and that does include our testing capacity.”
In Summit County, medical and public health officials opened a community testing site in Frisco to meet growing demand.
“Our surging case numbers since Labor Day weekend have increased demand for testing nearly sevenfold in Summit County,” said Amy Wineland, public health director, in a statement. “We went from 360 tests administered in August to more than 2,508 in October.”
The site, at 110 Third Ave. in Frisco, opened on Wednesday and will offer testing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week. Vail Health partnered with local public and government officials and Breckenridge Grand Vacations on the site.
Denver Post reporter Conrad Swanson contributed to this report.