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Colorado hospitals allowed to turn away patients amid Covid-19 surge

Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order Sunday allowing overwhelmed hospitals to prioritize care.
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Hospitals in Colorado are being allowed to turn away patients as the state experiences its worst Covid surge in a year.

An order signed Sunday by Gov. Jared Polis gives health care professionals the authority to prioritize crisis care under the direction of the state health department.

While the state has a nearly 80 percent partial vaccination rate, unvaccinated people with severe Covid-19 are overwhelming hospitals, many of which reported being over 90 percent capacity, according to Scott Bookman, Covid-19 incident commander for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Image: Dr. Carrie Goodson left, comforts a patient as she is intubated, while nurses Ashley Vite, center, and Amy Cooper assist in the ICU Covid ward at the Medical Center of Aurora, in Colorado on May 27, 2020.
Dr. Carrie Goodson left, comforts a patient as she is intubated, while nurses Ashley Vite, center, and Amy Cooper assist in the ICU Covid ward at the Medical Center of Aurora, in Colorado in May 2020.AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images file

"If you are unvaccinated, a regular trip to the grocery store, a night out to dinner are more dangerous than they have been at any point during this pandemic," Polis said Monday in Covid-19 update. "The delta variant is brutally effective at seeking out the unvaccinated, like a laser-guided missile."

A total of 1,358 Covid patients were hospitalized across Colorado on Wednesday, almost a 50 percent increase from the 909 Covid patients hospitalized on Oct. 3, according to the state's Covid-19 dashboard.

Covid hospitalization rates have been steadily growing since a summer low in Colorado, with 455 reported at the start of August. Polis said the state has the fifth-highest number of Covid cases in the country.

The majority of Covid hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people, "at somewhere between 80 and 90 percent across Colorado," said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection control and prevention for UCHealth, the largest hospital in the Denver area.

She said the executive order will allow health care workers, "who are obviously stretched," to make calls that prioritize urgency and possibly reduce overcrowding in hospitals.

Doctors and nurses have been taking extra shifts and working overtime to meet the growing need, said Dr. Eric Poeschla, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Hospital, where 85 percent of all Covid patients are unvaccinated.

Besides getting vaccinated, a more holistic approach to Covid-19 prevention might better protect the most vulnerable and reduce hospitalizations, he said.

"The most sensible strategy, I think, is a combination of vaccination, boosting, masking, limiting indoor gatherings without masking," Poeschla. "Attention to all those things at once really helps."

Vaccinated people in Colorado are not required to wear masks in most indoor settings, while studies show that a vaccinated person's viral load may be similar to that of an unvaccinated person. Although the state’s partially vaccinated rate is comparatively high nationwide, the state must reach around a 90 percent rate to avoid another surge, he said.

Until more people are vaccinated, each precaution will protect those who cannot get vaccinated or who have serious breakthrough cases, Barron said. While the "vast majority" of Covid-19 patients in Colorado hospitals are unvaccinated, the vaccinated hospitalizations represent the state's most physically vulnerable population.

Among the roughly 20 percent of vaccinated people hospitalized for Covid-19, many are over 65 or have underlying comorbidities that lead to immunosuppression, like cancer patients who need chemotherapy, she said.

“When you have a vulnerable host and then you have delta in play, which is much more infectious and much more transmissible, it's the perfect storm where all you need is one community to be vulnerable who can then get impacted and then expose more people, and it just keeps the momentum,” Barron said. “Like a wildfire.”