Colorado’s COVID response in the top half, new report says

Colorado’s COVID-19 response was one of the better ones in the country, despite high death rates in nursing homes, according to a report released Thursday.

Every year, the Commonwealth Fund ranks states’ overall health systems based on measures of access, like how many people are uninsured; hospital and nursing home quality indicators; rates of deaths from preventable causes; and health behaviors, such as smoking.

This year, the organizations included metrics that tried to quantify states’ COVID-19 responses.

Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Washington and Oregon made up the top five, while Alabama, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia comprised the bottom of the list.

Colorado came in 17th on the COVID-19 rankings and was in the top half of states on most of the metrics:

  • Percentage of adults who are vaccinated and received a booster: 12th
  • How long it took to vaccinate 70% of those 12 and older: 15th
  • How many days a state’s intensive-care units were more than 80% full: 22nd
  • Number of days hospitals reported staffing shortages: 28th
  • COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people: 20th
  • Excess deaths (the number of deaths beyond what’s expected in a “normal” year): 12th
  • COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes: 34th

Some of the information in the report didn’t match state-level data. The report showed Colorado’s ICUs were 80% full on 62 days between August 2020 and March 2022, but the state’s dashboard showed that units were that full every week since mid-July 2021 — far more than the equivalent of two months.

It also showed there were 59 days when Colorado hospitals were short-staffed during that period, which doesn’t seem to square with reports on the ground.

David Radley, a senior scientist at the Commonwealth Fund, said they used data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to compare hospital strain across states. He wasn’t sure why the state-level data was different.

Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis, said the governor’s office would review the report, but the state has had relatively low case and death rates throughout the pandemic.

“We are grateful to Coloradans who got vaccinated, wore masks, stayed home when needed and supported their communities through this crisis,” he said in a statement. “While the pandemic has been difficult worldwide, the Colorado response story is one of resilience, innovation, problem-solving and agility.”

Colorado came in 12th for overall health system performance. As in recent years, the state did well on avoiding potentially preventable deaths from natural causes and on residents’ health behaviors, but poorly on deaths from suicide and alcohol-related causes.

In general, states that did well in the COVID-19 rankings were those with relatively healthy populations and better care access and quality. It’s difficult to disentangle how much a state’s performance against the virus depended on policies adopted during the pandemic, versus pre-existing factors like how healthy its residents were, or personal choices like how people many got vaccinated, Radley said.

“It’s not one thing or another. It’s all of these things playing off each other,” he said in a press call Wednesday.

The data didn’t show a clear trade-off between preventing COVID-19 deaths and deaths from other preventable or treatable causes. In general, states with higher death rates from the virus also had higher rates of deaths from other causes, such as heart disease.

But it’s too early to say definitively that precautions against the virus didn’t result in some mortality increases, said David Blumenthal, president of the Commonwealth Fund.

“I don’t think we have the final, to use an unfortunate phrase, post-mortem,” he said.

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