DENVER — Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) gave an update on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday ahead of the holiday weekend as the omicron variant becomes more prevalent in the United States.
Cases are trending up for the first time in weeks, and CDPHE State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said the increase is likely being driven by the omicron variant. The percent positivity data also show an increase, with a current seven-day average positivity rate of 7.8%.
So far, Herlihy said the mountain resort and Denver metro areas are experiencing the sharpest increase in cases, while some counties are not currently experiencing a substantial increase.
The state has detected key omicron signatures in all 21 wastewater systems that are participating in CDPHE's detection program. State labs have also seen a sharp increase in the percentage of positive PCR tests presenting the profile for the omicron variant, particularly since Dec. 10.
Herlihy said this data suggests that potentially half of all new cases detected in recent days could be caused by the omicron variant.
The omicron variant is also causing a higher rate of reinfections and vaccine breakthrough cases, although Herlihy said COVID vaccines are offering higher levels of protection against severe symptoms among breakthrough cases.
The latest data shows the odds of a close contact becoming a COVID case is twice as likely with the omicron variant compared to the delta variant, according to Herlihy.
There has been a fairly significant decline in hospitalizations since peaking this month, with COVID-19 Incident Commander Scott Bookman reporting 1,026 COVID patients occupying beds as of Wednesday.
Hospital capacity is increasing as a result, with the seven-day moving average number of hospital beds available at 631 as of Wednesday. Bookman said that increasing hospital capacity will be important as the omicron variant becomes more prevalent.
"While our peak of over 1,500 being hospitalized with COVID wasn't as high as last December, we certainly got to a point where our medical system was being stretched," Bookman said.
Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) acknowledged Tuesday that there is community spread of the omicron variant in the state but said it is not yet the dominant strain of the virus as it currently is in other areas of the country.
"Omicron is here, we have community spread, it's at a higher level in the state in areas that experience increased visitation and travel," Polis said. "And we know that we need to use the tools at our disposal to protect ourselves."
Those tools include getting vaccinated, getting tested if symptomatic, and wearing masks if indoors around others, Polis said.
He suggested that people look to community vaccination sites if they're struggling to get a timely appointment through their local pharmacy.
While testing sites have been busy as the holidays approach, the state said it still has enough capacity right now.
"This is our busiest time," said Rob Carlucci with COVID Check Colorado. "Everyone wants to go get tested before they go see their families, before getting on flights."
Carlucci tests hundreds of people a day with COVID Check Colorado. The company completed 11,000 tests on Monday.
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