Jeffco health head declares ‘fourth wave’

Young people now more at risk to get COVID but remain less likely to be hospitalized

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/30/21

With Jeffco currently seeing rates of COVID-19 equal to those seen last fall at the start of that season’s major surge in cases, Jeffco’s top public health official told the Jeffco commissioners …

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Jeffco health head declares ‘fourth wave’

Young people now more at risk to get COVID but remain less likely to be hospitalized

Posted

With Jeffco currently seeing rates of COVID-19 equal to those seen last fall at the start of that season’s major surge in cases, Jeffco’s top public health official told the Jeffco commissioners on April 20 that “we are clearly now in a fourth wave.”

“Our incidence rates are now as high as they were last October when under (the state’s) dial two we went into the very severe Level Red restrictions,” said Jefferson County Public Health Executive Director Dawn Comstock. “So, I am quite concerned about the level of community spread of COVID-19 in Jefferson County right now.”

On the day Comstock made those comments, Jeffco’s seven-day average for new cases was 177.3 per 100,000 residents while the COVID-19 test positivity rate was 5.9%.

After mostly decreasing for the past five months, hospitalizations have also been increasing, Comstock said.

Meanwhile, the county’s current 14-day hospitalization rate, 0.8 per 100,000, puts it well below the cut-off that would trigger a move from Level Blue to the more restrictive Level Yellow under the county’s current two-phased COVID-19 reopening plan. Still, that rate has also risen significantly since the end of March, when it was as low 0.5 per 100,000.

Under that plan, Jeffco is set to remain in Level Blue regardless of hospitalization trends until May 15 and then move into the new Level Clear, in which no restrictions will initially be imposed.

However, the county would be moved back to Level Blue if the average hospitalizations per 100,000 people over a 14-day period rises to between 2 and 3. It would be moved to even more restrictive dial levels if the 14-day average for new hospitalizations exceeded 3 per 100,000.

Comstock said data shows the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are both being driven by younger people, who are more susceptible to new variants of COVID-19 than they were to earlier versions of the virus.

However, she also said it is important to know that those young people are still less likely to require hospitalization than the older people who made up the vast majority of hospitalizations during the pandemic.

“Even if they do require hospitalization they are less likely to have such severe illness that they end up on a ventilator or being a fatality,” she said. “But that does not mean that cannot happen and that’s where each individual needs to understand their personal risk and take precautions based on their personal risk.”

During the meeting, Comstock defended the county’s new two-phased approach, which she said makes sense given where the county is at with vaccine distribution.

“We’re trying to slowly shift ourselves from strict governmental control in terms of the public health orders into an area where we can allow more personal responsibility based on personal risk,” said Comstock. “And that is only being allowed to happen because we are doing such a good job with vaccination.”

As of April 26, 61% of Jeffco residents who are eligible for the vaccine had received at least one shot.

However, Comstock also cautioned that while those numbers are “amazing,” they mean a significant portion of residents are still unvaccinated and at great risk of getting COVID-19 if they drop their own precautions.

“Everybody who is not yet vaccinated really, really needs to understand what risks you are placing yourself, your family members and your loved ones in when you go out in public spaces,” she said.

During the meeting, Comstock and the commissioners also heard from one resident who criticized the county’s approach to reopening, which was allowing the county to operate in Level Blue even as its rate of new cases would put it at Level Red on the old dial.

She also expressed concern about the growing rate of hospitalizations statewide, which she said have surpassed Colorado School of Public Health projections on which county regulations are based.

Statewide, the number of people hospitalized went from 382 on April 1 to 621 on April 25. Similar data on the number of people hospitalized in Jeffco each day are not available on the JCPH website, making direct comparisons between state and county data difficult. JCPH Epidemeologist Kate Watkins said the county does not show hospitalization data day by day to protect patient privacy.

However, the county does share data for the number of people hospitalized each week. That number increased each week from 20 the week of March 21 to 42 the week of April 11 before decreasing to 26 for the week of April 18. However, those numbers do not reflect the overall number of people in the hospital as they do not account for the number of people in the hospital for multiple weeks. There can also be lags in the updating of hospitalization numbers.

“Speaking from the perspective of a scientist who is not very much swayed by political arguments, I disagree that Jeffco and the rest of the metro area can safely reopen at this time,” said Dr. Karen Tonso.

Later in the discussion, Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper acknowledged that there has been “confusion” around Jeffco’s decision to move the county to Level Blue but expressed support for JCPH’s decision to do so.

“I hear from some constituents like Dr. Tonso who say `we aren’t going far enough’ and I hear from other constituents who say `open up and follow the lead of other counties,’” she said. “I really think our local public health directors have come together in the metro area to based on the data and other factors come up with what you think is the best scenario looking forward.”

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