Colorado’s COVID picture looks manageable, but BA.2.12.1 is wild card

Right now, Colorado’s increasing COVID-19 cases are manageable, but it’s not clear what the state should expect as yet another more-contagious variant of the virus is poised to take over.

Hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 across the state increased slightly to 110 on Tuesday, from 103 a week earlier. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is only releasing hospitalization data once a week, making it difficult to analyze trends, but it appears the number of people who are seriously sick with COVID-19 is still near all-time lows.

New COVID-19 cases are relatively low, but increasing steadily, with 5,509 reported in the week ending Sunday. That’s roughly 21% more than in the previous week, and comparable to late July 2021.

So far, there’s no sign of the fast growth seen in some surges, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. The level of virus in the community appears to be relatively low, but it’s challenging to interpret the data since fewer people are getting tested, she said.

The percentage of tests coming back positive has trended up, with an average of 6.09% positive in the last week. Outbreaks also rose marginally last week, with the number considered active in schools dropping as more clusters cropped up in long-term care facilities.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s dashboard lists transmission as low in Colorado, based on newer criteria that emphasize hospital capacity. Under the old criteria, which emphasized cases, 21 of the state’s 64 counties would have been considered to have “substantial” or “high” transmission.

Nationwide, cases are about where they were in late July 2021. Total hospitalizations are at early-July levels, though the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive-care units remains near all-time lows, according to data compiled by The New York Times. Over the last two weeks, hospitalizations have risen in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

The trends still suggest a large wave isn’t likely at this point, but that could change as the BA.2.12.1 variant replaces BA.2, Carlton said.

As of Wednesday morning, the CDC estimated BA.2 caused about 62% of the country’s cases, with BA.2.12.1 steadily gaining and accounting for 36.5%. The rate at which BA.2.12.1’s share is growing suggests it will knock BA.2 out of the top spot soon, she said.

“I think there is large uncertainty about where we’ll be next week,” she said.

The BA.2.12.1 variant, another offshoot of omicron, is somewhat more contagious than BA.2, which itself was more contagious than all previous versions of the virus. The big question is whether it also is better at getting around the immune system or is more likely to cause severe disease, Carlton said.

So far, there’s no sign the new variant is more severe, though data is limited.

Last week, the CDC released an estimate that almost three-fifths of all Americans, and about three-quarters of children and adolescents, had had COVID-19 at some point. The study didn’t assess how many of those people had antibody levels believed to protect them against severe illness. Unlike people who survived certain diseases, like measles, those who recovered from COVID-19 don’t have lifelong immunity.

A variant that’s simply more contagious is better at finding people in the dwindling pool of those who are susceptible, Carlton said. One that is better at evading the immune system effectively pushes people back into the pool, increasing the number who could become seriously ill.

Some preprint papers have suggested that a recent omicron infection may not provide as much protection against BA.2.12.1 as it did against BA.2, but the research is still preliminary, she said.

“If there was greater immune escape, that would be more challenging,” she said.

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