EL PASO COUNTY — While the latest figures from El Paso County Public Health show a 19% decrease week over week in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, one of the largest hospital systems in Colorado is seeing an increase in their number of patients with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection.
As of Thursday morning, UCHealth's hospital system reported 149 COVID-19 hospitalizations. On Wednesday, 61 of those cases were in El Paso County locations, accounting for around 40% of COVID-19 hospitalizations total. "We're seeing a slightly higher rate in our county than we're seeing in other areas... We think the difference is that we have a lower percentage of vaccination," said Dr. David Steinbruner, the chief medical officer for the UCHealth Southern Region.
About 12% of the total state's population live in El Paso County. As of Thursday, 63.4% of the eligible county population without DOC immunizations had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Out of all Colorado counties, El Paso County sits at number 26 when it comes to the percentage of eligible people with one dose of a vaccine. "I've actually had people come into the ER who have COVID-19, and they're pretty sick with it, and say, 'geez, I really wish I had gotten vaccinated,'" said Dr. Steinbruner.
The cases within UCHealth's El Paso County locations are all assumed to be the Delta variant, according to Dr. Steinbruner. All cases are tested in the same way, and to differentiate between different variations of COVID-19, must be sent to the state laboratory.
Those with El Paso County Public Health said the Delta variant is more transmissible than other kinds of COVID-19, and there are increasing concerns there may be more severity of the disease in younger populations. "We're seeing that it does cause complications or more severe disease in even some of our younger and healthier individuals, and because, in our community, those particular cohorts are lagging in their uptake of vaccine, we're seeing that they are requiring more hospital beds," said Dr. Robin Johnson, the medical director at El Paso County Public Health.
Dr. Johnson said over 90% of hospitalized patients are people who are not vaccinated. She said El Paso County's vaccination rate plays a role in the hospitalization numbers at UCHealth, but also said other factors impact those figures, including wearing a mask, social distancing, good hygiene, tourism, and the start of the school year. "We would hope that we would see a significant increase from our community in embracing the power that they have to be preventive citizens in this fight against COVID," said Dr. Johnson.
Dr. Steinbruner said it's complicated to completely explain why some people are choosing not to get vaccinated. "The problem is that the information that's out there is coming from very different sources that aren't quite as well vetted or scientifically rigorous as the ones that are promoting the vaccine. It's hard to get through all the noise... It's a combination of factors of people's independence and people not wanting to be forced to do something, and that has allowed people to let these other fears or concerns steer them away from something that's actually quite helpful," said Dr. Steinbruner.
Dr. Johnson and Dr. Steinbruner stressed that vaccinated individuals are less likely to be significantly sick or hospitalized if they do contract COVID-19. "We believe the only way through this is to get us all vaccinated, and really put this pandemic to rest," said Dr. Steinbruner.
Dr. Steinbruner said because the pandemic has lasted so long, UCHealth has been able to adapt and adjust to take care of patients. "But it doesn't mean that it's not emotionally taxing, it doesn't mean that the people aren't very sick, and it doesn't mean it's not putting pressure on our systems. We're actually getting calls from all over the country, in the western part of the United States, and the south, to try and get patients out of their state to us. Because they don't have any room in those states. We're trying to avoid that, if we possibly can," said Dr. Steinbruner.
Dr. Johnson said there have been some instances of individuals only getting one dose of a two dose COVID-19 vaccine. No matter how long it has been since the first dose, Dr. Johnson said it's important to receive the second immunization.