Hospitalizations for COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus continued dropping in Colorado, though it’s not clear if severe flu cases will also start to decrease.
As of Tuesday, 306 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado, down from 339 a week earlier. It was the third week in a row when fewer people were hospitalized with the virus.
Respiratory syncytial virus, which created an unprecedented surge of sick children in November, also was in retreat. The hospitalization rate fell for five of the last six weeks, dipping below last year’s peak.
With influenza, however, the trajectory was less clear. The flu hospitalization rate zigzagged between 5.6 and 6.9 people receiving care for every 100,000 Coloradans for the last four weeks.
It’s a relief that flu hospitalizations aren’t continuing to spike, but it’s difficult to say if the season has peaked or if infections will start rising again, said Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health.
As of Dec. 17, rates of flu-like illness were still “very high” in Colorado, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While flu activity remains high in most states, it decreased that week.
More than 20,000 people were hospitalized nationwide with flu in the week of Dec. 17, bringing the estimated toll to about 190,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. If the flu season truly has reached its peak, it would be relatively mild, compared to the years before the pandemic.
“The tripledemic idea, we seem to have escaped that,” Samet said.
While COVID-19 infections are falling, it’s not clear if holiday travel and gatherings could send them rising again, Samet said.
COVID-19 cases dropped by about 1,000 in the week ending Sunday, to 5,040 — though some of the decrease may be due to fewer people getting tested during the holiday weekend. About 8.5% of tests came back positive over the last seven days, down from 9.3% a week earlier.
It’s not clear if deaths have started to decrease yet, because of delays in reporting. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 67 people died in the week ending Dec. 4, which was the highest weekly total since February.
The number of counties considered high-risk increased from one at this time last week to seven: Alamosa, Bent, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande and Saguache. The CDC recommends that people in high-risk areas wear masks in indoor public places.
Transmission was “high” or “substantial” in 51 of Colorado’s 64 counties, suggesting the odds of encountering the virus are relatively high in most of the state.
There’s uncertainty about whether the XBB variant, which appears to be displacing the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 versions of the virus, could produce another increase in infections, Samet said. The BQs dropped from a combined 65% of cases last week to about 63% this week, according to CDC estimates. At the same time, XBB increased its share from 11% to 18%.
XBB now is believed to account for more than half of COVID-19 infections in New England, but scientists don’t know if it has enough of an advantage over other variants to cause another spike. New variants generally succeed if they’re significantly better at evading the immune system, but the combination of vaccinations and previous infections means the odds of a wave of hospitalizations are lower, Samet said.
“Hopefully we are immune enough that we won’t see that happen,” he said.