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Colorado’s COVID wave shows signs of receding, though impacts of Thanksgiving and omicron variant remain to be seen

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Colorado’s COVID wave shows signs of receding, though impacts of Thanksgiving and omicron variant remain to be seen

Colorado’s fifth COVID-19 wave may be starting to recede, but it’s too early to know whether spread over the Thanksgiving holiday or the concerning new omicron variant will stall or reverse the progress.

The number of hospitalizations for confirmed COVID-19 across the state dropped to 1,473 as of Monday afternoon, from a high of 1,576 on Nov. 23. Hospitals are still running near capacity, but the state reported more than 100 beds were available in intensive-care units for the first time in about three weeks.

Still, Colorado’s public health leaders are prepping in case those downward trends don’t continue. A group of experts advising the governor on Monday evening unanimously approved an amended document outlining what the state’s crisis standards of care would look like in the event hospitals are completely full and need to ration health care.

“We do want to have these revised recommendations approved… not because there’s any immediate need to activate them, but to have them prepared if the need arises in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.

While some people delay seeking medical care over a holiday, Colorado’s new COVID-19 hospital admissions started to decline before Thanksgiving, suggesting the state may have passed a peak, said Beth Carlton, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

New COVID-19 infections have been trending down and a lower percentage of tests are coming back positive, though the picture may be partly skewed by lower-than-usual testing over the last few days, she said.

“There’s some hopeful news there,” she said.

Still, the virus remains widespread in Colorado, and saying the situation is improving isn’t the same as saying it’s safe to throw away your masks and forget about scheduling that booster appointment, Carlton said.

“The risk of encountering someone with SARS-CoV-2 is still high,” she said.

Two big unknowns remain: what effect, if any, recent holiday gatherings will have on the virus’s trajectory, and whether the recently discovered omicron variant of the virus — not yet confirmed in Colorado — will spark a new wave of cases.

Last year, the third wave peaked in late November, and any effects from Thanksgiving were minimal, Carlton said. Of course, the situation is different this year: more people traveled, but fewer are susceptible to severe disease, with so many having been vaccinated.

“We needed a more general approach”

During Monday’s meeting of the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee, public health experts explained how the state would expand guidance to hospitals in need of relieving strain in the event they become overwhelmed with patients.

The guidelines adopted last year for crisis situations dealt mainly with how to parcel out life-saving ventilators and ICU beds. The new guidance, which awaits review from the governor, takes into account other factors critical to hospitals’ capacity for care, including emergency room capacity and non-ICU hospital beds along with staffing shortages, dialysis and medication.

“It became clear that we needed a more general approach,” said Dr. Stephen Cantrill, an emergency medicine physician at Denver Health, of the shift from focusing on ventilator availability.

The new guidelines focus on the lowest-risk patients and how hospitals might be able to ease strain by identifying people — particularly non-COVID-patients — who might be able to be discharged earlier than normal to receive out-patient care. These patients can always return to the hospital if needed.

“The perfect system is not that none of them come back to the hospital,” said Dr. Anuj Mehta, a pulmonary critical care physician at Denver Health, who outlined the updated document Monday. “If two or three come back, that’s a win.”

The omicron variant hasn’t been found in the United States yet, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, said it almost certainly will be. He urged preparations, like increasing testing capacity and wearing masks again.

On Sunday, the World Health Organization issued a warning that omicron has a large number of mutations that could allow it to spread more easily, or make it harder for the immune system to recognize that this is a virus it has seen before and should attack. It will take two or three weeks to get enough data to understand how much we should worry about the new variant, though, Carlton said.

The United States, along with other countries, restricted travel from southern Africa, but it’s not clear if those measures will be effective, since the variant already has spread. Omicron was first identified in South Africa, but has been found in 11 European countries, Israel, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Botswana.

Keeping an eye out for omicron

In Colorado, essentially all virus samples chosen for genome sequencing have contained the delta variant. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab and some private labs sequence a random sample of positive COVID-19 tests in the state each week.

The state health department reported it will update its wastewater surveillance program to look for omicron. Testing wastewater can’t tell the state who has the virus — the sample is tested after many households’ and businesses’ toilet waste has come together, and about half of infected people don’t shed virus particles in their stool — but it can give a rough idea of how widespread the virus may be, and which variants are circulating. If a community’s wastewater has a high viral load, the state can send testing and other resources there, to try to get the spread under control.

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As U.S. puts 8,500 troops on high alert amid Russia-Ukraine crisis, experts call this the biggest European security challenge since the Cold War

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As U.S. puts 8,500 troops on high alert amid Russia-Ukraine crisis, experts call this the biggest European security challenge since the Cold War

The U.S. is putting 8,500 troops on high alert as Russia stacks soldiers along its border with Ukraine, sparking the largest challenge to European security since the Cold War, experts tell the Herald.

The Pentagon has placed these U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for potential deployment to Europe as the diplomatic situation “appears pretty frozen” between Russia and the West over concerns that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine, said Chris Miller, assistant professor of International History at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“No one has a crystal ball, but I’m quite worried that this is going to end with military escalation,” said Miller, who’s also the co-director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program. “That would be disastrous for Russia and for Europe, and would be the largest war in Europe since 1945.

“This is the biggest challenge to European security since the Cold War,” he added.

His sense is that the Russian military is in place for a “pretty big operation” if President Vladimir Putin decides to go ahead with it.

“The fact that Russia has amassed so many troops along the western border has changed the security situation in Europe, making it less secure,” Miller said. “It necessitates some sort of U.S. response and NATO response.”

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Monday said no final decisions had been made on deployments, which he said would happen only if the NATO alliance decides to activate a rapid-response force “or if other situations develop” in connection with tensions over Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders.

“What this is about is reassurance to our NATO allies,” Kirby said.

He added that he could not rule out that U.S. troops already based in Europe could be shifted east as further reinforcements.

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Ducks dump Bruins, 5-3

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Ducks dump Bruins, 5-3

A strong homestand ended with a thud for the Bruins on Monday when the surprising Anaheim Ducks took advantage of another slow Bruin start and a still-rusty Tuukka Rask to beat the B’s, 5-3, at the Garden.

The B’s finished their seven-game Garden residence at 5-2 and now head out on a three-game road trip that begins on Wednesday against the high-powered Colorado Avalanche.

Rask allowed five goals on 27 shots. He gave up one egregious shorthanded goal and at least one or two more that he would normally have if he was on his game.

“He’s not where he needs to be, that’s evident, and we weren’t sure he would be this soon, either. I think you need seven or eight starts,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “We certainly needed a few more saves if we were going to win tonight. He’ll need more starts and then we’ll have to evaluate it.”

Cassidy said Linus Ullmark is scheduled to start in Colorado and Rask will get back in net either Friday in Arizona or Sunday in Dallas. In four starts, one of which he got pulled from, Rask is 2-2, allowing 14 goals with an .844 save percentage.

“You try to set your expectations high, but sometimes the reality doesn’t match it. Obviously, I haven’t been good enough, kind of the inconsistency within the game,” said Rask, who admitted he’s having trouble with his depth and tracking the puck. “Not satisfied obviously.”

Rask may have been shaky, but the B’s may have been down more than 1-0 after 20 minutes if not for the goalie. For as productive as the homestand had been, slow starts had become a theme of late and it caught up to them on Monday as they chased the game all night after falling behind. For the fourth straight game, they allowed the first goal and this time they never got even.

It could be a matter of the team figuring out how to handle its own success.

“I think that we just have to be ready for teams to be ultra-prepared for us. We’ve had a really good run here and teams know that,” said Taylor Hall, who had one of the B’s goals. “For us, it’s not some special way of playing at the start, it’s just a simplified mindset and a way of playing that lets us feel good about our legs and good about our game right off the bat. Instead of turnovers and not getting it deep, putting our D in a bad spot and then having to play in our D zone, the goal should be for the first 10 minutes to play down their end. That’s going to be our focus from here on.”

The Ducks already had the edge in play when, at 9:09, Oskar Steen buried Nicolas Deslauriers from behind into the boards. Steen was originally assessed a five-minute major, but upon further review it was surprisingly reduced to a two-minute minor.

The Ducks (11-5 shot advantage in the first) made it worth their while anyway. After the B’s squandered a couple of chances to clear the puck, Ryan Getzlaf stepped into a slapper from the top of the right circle that deflected off Derek Grant in front to beat Rask.

Trevor Zegras gave the B’s a chance to get back in the game when he took a slashing penalty on Craig Smith on the first shift of the second period, but it blew up in the B’s faces.

Shortly after Anaheim goalie John Gibson made a great stick save on a clean break-in by David Pastrnak, the Ducks doubled their lead on an ugly shorty. As Nick Foligno was trying to reload with the puck through the neutral zone, he simply lost his footing and gave up the puck to Hampus Lindholm, who pushed it up to Isac Lundestrom for a partial break. With Pastrnak trying to defend from behind, all Lundestrom could do was shovel the puck onto the net. It somehow found a hole between Rask’s pads and slithered home at 1:28.

“Just a terrible goal,” said Rask.

But the B’s got one back at 7:47. In the midst of a line change, Tomas Nosek made a nice move along the right half wall to avoid an Anaheim checker and work his way back into the middle of the ice. From there, he fed Pastrnak for a one-timer, his 20th of the season at 7:47.

The Ducks, however, regained their two-goal lead at 11:04. Getzlaf avoided a Pastrnak check on the left wing and let loose an off-balance hard shot past a Brandon Carlo screen that beat Rask over his right shoulder.

Yet the B’s kept fighting. They pulled back to within a goal at 15:52 after Josh Mahura took a hooking penalty against Steen. Hall replaced Foligno, who left the game with an upper-body injury (he had a fight earlier in the game against Sam Carrick), as the net-front presence on the first power-play unit and he was the recipient of beautiful Brad Marchand feed for the tap-in behind Gibson for his ninth of the year and the B’s were within a goal going into the third.

But this would not be their night. Troy Terry once again gave the Ducks their third two-goal lead at 6:12. Terry won an aerial puck at the Boston blue line as Urho Vaakanainen fell down and he moved into the offensive to beat Rask with a long wrister.

Then, after Kevin Shattenkirk appeared to prevent a Hall goal at one end, Greg Pateryn just about salted it away with a slap shot that got past Rask at 10:58.

Erik Haula scored with 3:52 left in the third, but despite pressure with Rask pulled for an extra skater, the B’s could not get any closer.

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Mike Preston: Ravens have work to do close the gap with Chiefs, Bills and Bengals in the AFC | COMMENTARY

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Mike Preston: Ravens have work to do close the gap with Chiefs, Bills and Bengals in the AFC | COMMENTARY

As the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills were playing in their epic game Sunday night, it was hard to imagine how the Ravens could compete with either of those teams or the Cincinnati Bengals.

The conclusion was simple: They couldn’t.

If the Ravens had made the playoffs, they would have been a one-and-done reject like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were blown out by the Chiefs in the wild-card round. Among other things, the Bengals, Chiefs and Bills played at a faster pace with much more intensity and speed than the Ravens. To me, that shows Baltimore might be in for a bit of a rebuild, and general manager Eric DeCosta must have a good offseason in free agency and April’s NFL draft.

The Ravens have few players who could have started on the defensive front sevens of Buffalo, Kansas City and Cincinnati, and they certainly couldn’t match the speed, play-making ability or offensive schemes of those teams. Baltimore lost its final six games of the 2021 regular season — five of those by eight combined points — to be eliminated from the playoffs, but that fits into the profile of recent years, too.

They are good enough to win 10, 11, possibly 12 games a year, but they can’t go deep into the postseason.

Did you see that game Sunday night?

It all starts with the quarterback. Jackson isn’t in the class with Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow or Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who are under contract for the immediate future while Jackson’s contract negotiations are still ongoing. Jackson covered up a lot of the Ravens’ problems but he would have been exposed in the playoffs against the best of the best in the playoffs. Allen and Mahomes combined for 707 yards and seven touchdowns in the Chiefs’ 42-36 overtime win in the divisional round Sunday night in what some have described as the best playoff game in NFL history.

Burrow was sacked nine times but still completed 28 of 37 passes for 348 yards in the Bengals’ 19-16 upset of the top-seeded Titans on Saturday. With Burrow, he can win the game from the pocket. With Mahomes and Allen, they can win it from anywhere on the field with their arms or their legs.

The difference, however, between the three teams and the Ravens isn’t just about quarterback play. Kansas City has top-notch speed in receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman and the NFL’s best tight end in Travis Kelce, while the Bengals have burners and budding stars in receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Buffalo has playmakers in receivers Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis.

The Ravens are young don’t have a legitimate No. 1 receiver on their roster. They have speed with Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay, but the Ravens’ passing game isn’t as sophisticated as Cincinnati’s, Kansas City’s or Buffalo’s. Those teams scheme well and run precise combination and clearing routes. Chiefs coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy put on a clinic in that regard against the Bills.

Kansas City, Buffalo and Cincinnati also complement their passing games with strong pass rushers. When they get a lead and opposing teams are forced to throw, they can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. The Chiefs have ends Chris Jones, Frank Clark and linebacker Melvin Ingram. Buffalo can get pressure with ends Mario Addison and Greg Rousseau while Cincinnati has ends Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson and tackle B.J. Hill. The Ravens don’t have anyone of that caliber on their roster.

The Ravens will still be able to compete, and they will stick with their formula for success because they’ve invested a lot of money and time into the run-dominated offense of coordinator Greg Roman. Pending rehabilitation from injury, they should get back their top two running backs in J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, as well as Pro Bowl left tackle Ronnie Stanley. With another year, Jackson should improve and get a better read on defenses that have confused him with a lot of blitzes and pressure.

The key, though, is DeCosta. The Ravens have built this team from outside in, meaning they need interior linemen on both sides of the ball. They don’t need more maulers on the offensive line, but versatile performers who can both run and pass block.

On defense, they need an infusion of young talent on the line, as well as at linebacker. Second-year linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison had disappointing seasons. Veterans Josh Bynes and Justin Houston have both lost a step. DeCosta has to sign free agents who can have an impact, not the fading ones he brought in a year ago like wide receiver Sammy Watkins and offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

If the Ravens can control the time of possession, they’ll be able to diminish potential scoring threats. If not, the three top teams in the AFC this year will battle it out again in 2022 for conference supremacy.

The Ravens probably have another offseason to figure it out. On Friday, coach John Harbaugh announced the team had fired defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. When coordinators start to leave losing teams, fingers are getting pointed.

To borrow an old NFL saying, that means it is time for the next man up. In this situation, it’s Roman, and then Harbaugh.

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