As winter approaches, hospitals across the state of Colorado are facing a renewed COVID-19 crisis with an influx of patients flooding into health care facilities. Front-line workers continue to bear the brunt of the state's latest wave, with staffing shortages only exacerbating existing issues.
"Our hospitals and ICUs are filling up with patients who are going on ventilators and many of them dying," Dr. Diana Breyer, a critical care physician at UCHealth, told ABC News.
There are now more than 1,500 patients receiving care for COVID-19 across Colorado, marking the highest number of patients in nearly a year, according to federal data.
On average, nearly 230 residents are being admitted to the hospital each day, with state data now showing more than 94% of intensive care beds are currently in use statewide.
The number of people currently infected is approaching the highest levels of the pandemic, with 1 in 48 people in the state estimated to be currently infectious, according to the modeling report released earlier this month by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Colorado School of Public Health.
"I wish that people could see what I see as we are in another surge with COVID-19," said Breyer.
Breyer, who currently cares for some of the sickest patients at three of UCHealth hospitals in northern Colorado, explained that she is growing increasingly concerned about the significant increase in the number of patients she is seeing.
"With this surge we are seeing younger patients in our ICUs. We have seen patients of all ages throughout this pandemic," Breyer said, adding that the great majority of these patients are unvaccinated. "We are seeing people get very sick and die from this disease and these people don't need to be dying right now."
Like many other front-line workers across the country, Colorado health workers are overworked and exhausted, leading to critical staffing shortages.
"It is difficult to care for so many COVID-19 patients, just the challenges of how long they're here with us, as well as the strain that it puts on the staff," Dawn Sculco, chief nursing officer at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, told ABC News. "From an organizational perspective this is an all-hands-on-deck situation."
To help manage the influx of patients who are in need of care across the state, Colorado health officials announced late Tuesday that the state had reactivated crisis standards of care for staffing of health care systems.
"We want to be sure Coloradans know they can and should continue to access necessary health care. If you're sick and need care, please go get it," Dr. Eric France, Colorado Department of Health's chief medical officer, said in a statement. "Activating staffing crisis standards of care allows health care systems to maximize the care they can provide in their communities with the staff they have available."
Staff are exhausted and stretched thin, said Dr. Matt Mendenhall, chief medical officer at Centura Littleton Adventist Hospital, told ABC News, adding that the work is "only getting harder."
"When our hospitals are overcrowded with patients, everybody will have care that is different than how we usually deliver it. And this can lead to delays, and I'm afraid, worse outcomes," Breyer said.
Concerns that the pandemic will worsen in Colorado in the weeks to come led Gov. Jared Polis to take additional executive action to allow all residents over the age of 18 to receive a booster shot six months after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two months past their Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Current federal guidelines have only authorized boosters for the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and for people deemed at high risk of infection.
Polis declared "the entire State of Colorado high risk for exposure or transmission of COVID-19," in an executive order on Thursday.
This week, Colorado officials also announced Federal Emergency Medical Agency medical surge teams had been requested for understaffed medical facilities.
Polis signed an "urgent" executive order earlier this month that would permit the state's health department to order hospitals to transfer or stop admitting patients after reaching or nearing capacity.
Health experts continue to urge Americans to get vaccinated, and boosted when eligible, to help stop the pandemic and prevent severe disease and deaths.
At this time, approximately 62.3% of Colorado's total population has been fully vaccinated, ranking it 14th among states.
"There's so much misinformation out there," said Breyer. "When I see people, they're at the end of their rope there. They're anxious and scared and about to go on a ventilator, some of whom will die. And I just wish that we could figure out what to do to convince more people of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination. It really is the No. 1 treatment that can prevent people from ending up here."