As the COVID-19 pandemic moves toward a more endemic phase, resources and services relating to the virus as well as vaccines and tests continue to shift in Eagle County.
According to Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s director of public health, throughout the months of May and June, the county experienced “higher levels of transmission,” mirroring the rest of the state. However, over the past two weeks, the number of new cases as well as positivity rates have started to level out and even slightly drop.
“Fortunately, throughout the period of increased transmission in our communities, hospitalizations have remained low,” Harmon said. “This helps highlight protections within a highly vaccinated community, as well as some immunity from previous infection.”
Largely the cases being seen across Colorado are still dominated by various strains of omicron. In the spring, the dominant strain was BA.2 and now BA.4 and BA.5 account for approximately 50% of COVID-19 cases nationwide, Harmon said.
“Each of these variants have demonstrated higher transmissibility compared to the original omicron strain of December and January, which is why vaccines later this year will likely cover omicron in this newer formulation,” he added. “The good news is we have not seen evidence of increased severity during this recent period of higher transmission.”
A spokesperson for Vail Health noted that COVID-19 is still present in the community. On Wednesday, the spokesman said the hospital is experiencing one to three patients a week being admitted, and that patients coming into urgent care and the clinics are generally experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms.
As we move toward the new endemic phase of COVID-19, however, tracking positive cases and transmission has certainly changed from even six months ago as public testing sites closed up shop and at-home testing became more prevalent.
“With a significant amount of at-home testing available, many of these cases are not reported to state or local public health agencies,” Harmon said, adding that for this reason the practice of comparing disease rates to historic or even geographic data no longer makes sense.
That doesn’t mean that disease tracking is gone, however.
“Surveillance efforts will continue to look at positivity rates, disease rates, and hospitalizations. However, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is using wastewater surveillance throughout Colorado, including Eagle County,” Harmon said. “This surveillance tool helps to identify changing trends in community virus levels earlier than just looking at case rates.”
Changes to testing
In recent months — largely following the December and January surge of omicron — one of the main changes locally has been the availability of free public testing sites.
“As COVID-19 is shifting toward being endemic, the testing resources continue to evolve to reflect changes in transmission and demand for testing. The pandemic phase required more of a crisis response, hence testing locations in parking lots throughout the county and availability five or more days each week,” Harmon said. “With a disease that is more endemic, state and local public health officials are working to shift more testing and vaccination resources back into traditional medical clinics.”
In fact, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently has opted to close test sites in the region due to decreased demand. As such, starting July 1, the state department is consolidating Eagle County test sites to one location under a new provider, Affinity/Eurofin, at the Eagle Town Park.
This location will be open three days a week for six hours a day offering free PCR testing and is acceptable for travel validation.
At local health care providers — Colorado Mountain Medical and Vail Health — testing is still available. However, around six months ago when testing sites began to close, the providers only started offering tests to those with symptoms. As such, walk-in testing and travel testing are no longer available from these locations.
As Harmon stated earlier, this has led to an increased reliance on at-home testing. Free at-home tests are widely available for pickup throughout the county and online through the federal government. In Eagle County, these pickup locations include the Vail Library, Vail Fire, Eagle County Government offices in Avon, Eagle and El Jebel as well as mail delivery via the U.S. Postal Service.
Plus, Harmon added, “Walgreens continues to provide testing and ‘patient-pay’ testing for travel is available in El Jebel outside of the Eagle County Community Center.”
And even as many things change, once a person tests positive for COVID-19, guidelines remain the same.
“We continue to ask anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to isolate per the CDC guidelines. This remains an important prevention measure to reduce community spread,” Harmon said.
To view the testing options, which are changing on July 1, visit EagleCountyCOVID.org
The most recent change to COVID-19 vaccines was the June 18 Centers for Disease Control recommendation that all children between 6 months and 5 years old receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration authorized both Pfizer (a 3-dose series) and Moderna (a 2-dose series) for this age range.
Several locations in the county are offering vaccines to this youngest age group including the Eagle County Public Health and Environment office locations in Eagle and Avon; the state mobile vaccination bus; and local pharmacies and healthcare providers.
According to a Vail Health spokesperson, the health care provider is currently offering Moderna for this age group, with Pfizer expected to be available soon.
As for everyone else: “Being up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccinations is important to both protect you, as well as our community,” Harmon said.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment now has a vaccination calculator available to help determine how many doses are recommended for individuals. This depends on pre-existing conditions, vaccine doses received and more. This tool is available at: Covid19.Colorado.gov/vaccine-calculator.
For information on where to get vaccines in Eagle County, visit EagleCountyCOVID.org.
Even as Eagle County pushes toward an endemic phase with COVID-19, Harmon added a reminder that testing and vaccine availability and administration is also impacted by other key challenges facing the community.
“While the U.S. health care system is plagued with staffing shortages, Eagle County also has a severe affordable housing need that contributes to the challenges we have in filling positions for physical and behavioral health care providers, as well as nearly all businesses in our mountain communities,” Harmon said. “Many actions are being taken by Eagle County Government and other local partners to increase the affordable housing stock, but it won’t alleviate some of the immediate service challenges within our communities.”