More COVID-19 patients are surviving now as care, therapies improve

One glimmer of hope as Colorado medical providers handle tough surge: A greater percentage of critically ill COVID-19 patients are surviving now, compared to the spring onset of the pandemic.
Dec. 6, 2020

Coloradans are enduring the toughest chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic so far with hospitalizations now reaching nearly double the number compared to the highest peak during the first wave of infections in the spring.

During this challenging time, there’s one glimmer of hope. Patients who become critically ill with COVID-19 are surviving at significantly higher rates.

About 94% of people who have had to be hospitalized with COVID-19 at UCHealth’s 12 hospitals are surviving this fall compared with about 87.5% in the spring. Patients with COVID-19 who must be hospitalized now also are able to stay a shorter time — on average about 6 days now, compared to an average of about 11 days in the spring.

COVID-19 survivor Robert Carver rings a bell as he leaves the hospital.
COVID-19 survivor Robert Carver rings a bell as he leaves the hospital. Source: UCHealth.

“It’s really amazing how in a very short time we’ve been able to have that much of an impact,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, one of the leading infectious disease experts in Colorado and senior medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth.

Barron attributes the better survival rates to improved medications and providers who have learned quickly how to better care for COVID-19 patients.

“So, what’s different? We do a lot of things very differently. Some of it is medications and treatments. But, a lot of it is the up-front treatment that we know how to do better now, even simple things: like for people who are having difficulty breathing, having them lie on their bellies to include oxygenation…and putting people on high-flow oxygen,” said Barron, who is also a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

Barron provided an update on the pandemic during a virtual panel discussion on Friday hosted by Donald Elliman, chancellor of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Barron also credited a high degree of cooperation among hospital systems around the state.

“If there’s one hospital that is getting overwhelmed and doesn’t have the ability to care for someone, then these patients can then be transferred to a different hospital…so they can get the care they need,” Barron said.

Barron and other public health experts are warning that both hospitalizations and the number of infected people in Colorado could rise in the coming days. After every holiday throughout the pandemic, cases have spiked. These surges typically lead to increases in both infections and hospitalizations about two weeks after each holiday since it typically takes about 14 days from the exposure date for those who become critically ill with COVID-19 to need hospital care. The two-week mark after Thanksgiving hits on Dec. 10.

Here’s a snapshot of where Colorado stands now, based on COVID-19 data from the State of Colorado and modeling reports from the Colorado School of Public Health and the team of experts who are providing data and forecasts to Gov. Jared Polis and leaders at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment:

  • About 4,000 new infections, on average, get reported each day.
  • About 1 in 40 Coloradans are currently infectious with COVID-19 now.
  • Approximately 15% of Coloradans have gotten COVID-19 thus far.
  • Nearly 2,000 people statewide are hospitalized with known or suspected COVID-19 cases now and hospitalizations have been rising since September. The fall hospitalizations compare to a peak during the spring of about 1,277 people hospitalized throughout the state. At UCHealth’s 12 hospitals, the number of people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases stands at about 410 now, almost double the peak at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Right now, we are in a very challenging time,” said Dr. Adit Ginde, a UCHealth emergency physician and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the CU School of Medicine.

“The Emergency Department has been on the front lines since the pandemic began,” Ginde said.

While many patients are coming in and needing help for COVID-19, providers now are doing a great job of caring for them, Ginde said.

“We’re much more confident in how we take care of patients and how we keep ourselves safe,” Ginde said. “We are seeing more patients than we ever have, even higher than the spring.”

Ginde said the providers are doing their jobs at “great personal sacrifice,” but that they are united in a common mission.

“In the ER, this is what we’re trained to do. There’s really a sense of community, sacrifice and purpose every day,” he said.

Ginde is helping to oversee many of the COVID-19 therapeutic clinical trials that are going on in Colorado, and he said he has been struck by how willing patients have been to try experimental therapies. (Click here to learn more about what researchers are learning about COVID-19 therapies.)

“Enthusiasm has been very high to participate in these transformational clinical trials,” Ginde said.

“It’s been a really remarkable experience over the last nine months. We’ve been at the forefront of clinical trials,” he said.

That means patients have been able to receive cutting-edge treatments, like those for Regeneron and other monoclonal antibodies, well before those treatments have been publicly available.

Ginde said that he has felt lucky that a “culture of discovery and innovation” is so central to providers and researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. That focus pre-dated the pandemic, but has enabled everyone to adapt quickly during a historically challenging time.

“We laid the groundwork for this type of research,” Ginde said.

Ginde said there was one concern from the spring that he hopes does not occur again now. Patients with medical concerns aside from COVID-19 avoided seeking medical care. Ginde said the Emergency Department saw about a 40% decrease in those seeing care for critical emergency medical issues like strokes and heart attacks.

“People feel more comfortable seeking care now,” Ginde said.

He urged people to seek care if they need it.

“Patients are safe seeking care,” Ginde said.

Barron echoed that message.

“We have safety controls in the clinics and the hospitals,” Barron said.

She said everyone is being tested for COVID-19 before procedures. Because patients are all wearing masks and medical providers wear full protective gear when they need it, medical settings are very safe.

“We do not want people to delay their care,” she said.

While the next few weeks may be challenging, Ginde is optimistic that Coloradans are facing the final peak in COVID-19 now.

“I’m hopeful that over the next few months, we’ll get through this together and we’ll see better days in the spring and summer.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.