Eagle County remains at low level of COVID-19 transmission amid slight increase in cases

Experts are watching new subvariant of omicron, but surge in December and January left county with more immunity than ever before

Eagle County Public Health has removed its mask mandate, meaning masks are no longer required in schools or government buildings but private businesses can choose whether to require them.
Kelly Getchonis/Vail Daily archive

Just over two years have passed since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Eagle County back in March of 2020 and, thankfully, much has changed since then.

Nearly all county residents are now vaccinated against COVID-19, according to statistics collected by Eagle County Public Health. Vail Health now has consistent access to monoclonal antibodies and antivirals proven to be effective in treating various strains of COVID-19.

“We have much better tools and understanding of the disease going forward to better protect and prepare ourselves than we did two years ago,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health.

This all means that Eagle County residents can feel prepared when they read headlines about new variants of COVID-19, like the new subvariant of the omicron variant known as “BA.2.”

The first omicron variant, known to public health experts as “BA.1,” hit Eagle County hard over the winter holiday season, causing the biggest surge in cases and hospitalizations the valley has seen to date.

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In December and January, the valley saw an exponential increase in infections with hundreds of new cases being reported each day, Lindley told the Vail Daily then. This put a strain on public health resources as Vail Health worked to treat those who were hospitalized with omicron, which Lindley said was “by far the most infectious respiratory illness we have ever encountered.”

The good news is that this wave left the Eagle County community with more immunity against COVID-19 — from vaccination and from previous infection — than ever before, Lindley said in an interview Friday.

The bad news is that the BA.2 subvariant of omicron is even more contagious than BA.1, he said. And, as spring break brings visitors into the valley to celebrate the end of the ski season, the new variant is undoubtedly already spreading in Eagle County.

‘BA.2’ – a subvariant of omicron

COVID-19 cases have been increasing in Europe driven by the appearance of the new subvariant and, “historically, trends in Europe are an early indicator for what to expect in the U.S.,” said Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director.

“We have a few factors that bring these new variants to us a bit quicker than most places in the U.S. because we are an international tourist destination,” Lindley said. “Any new variant that pops up anywhere in the world, we should assume will arrive on our doorsteps within weeks. That’s just a planning assumption that we have to prepare for, and that the community should always have in the back of their mind.”

This time around, though, “we know there’ll be some more illness … but we don’t expect to see more hospitalization and deaths due to this variant than what we have been seeing,” Lindley said.

The omicron subvariant BA.2 has been detected in “cases and wastewater samples” throughout Colorado, including in Eagle County, Harmon said in the statement.

Eagle County saw “a slight increase” in new cases and in test positivity rates this week after 10 straight weeks of decreases, he said. However, the county remains at “a low level of disease” with a case incidence rate of 54 cases per 100,000 people.

“Severe illness and hospitalization due to COVID remain very low,” Harmon said.

In a COVID-19 update delivered to Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education Wednesday, Superintendent Philip Qualman said there were zero cases reported among students and staff in the preceding week.

Eagle County Public Health allowed the county’s mask mandate to expire in mid-January after the omicron surge died down. This means masks are no longer required in schools or government buildings, but private businesses can choose whether to require them.

Given the strength of local public health infrastructure and the high rate of vaccination among Eagle County residents, both Lindley and Harmon said that the presence of this new subvariant does not require the reinstatement of mask mandates or COVID-19-related closures.

“As the pandemic evolves, our approach must evolve with it,” Harmon said.

On an individual level, residents can protect themselves by ensuring that they are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, which are now available to people ages 5 and older.

Vail Health plans to reduce the frequency of COVID-19 vaccine clinics as the mass vaccination model is no longer needed at this time, according to chief population health officer Chris Lindley.
Ali Longwell/Vail Daily File

Previous infection with the first omicron variant (BA.1) “appears to provide strong protection against BA.2 overall,” Harmon said. “Being up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations also continues to provide protection.”

The widespread circulation of BA.2 has led vaccine manufacturers to launch the FDA approval process for a fourth shot of COVID-19 vaccine. Vail Health and other local providers will have the capability to offer these fourth shots once they are approved, which Lindley said is likely to happen in the next month or so.

Lindley also recommended that residents have a few COVID-19 tests on hand so that they can test themselves if they begin to experience symptoms.

While symptoms could very well turn out to be a cold or seasonal allergies, it is best to prepare for the possibility of having contracted the new variant until a negative test proves otherwise. In this way, we can continue to reduce community transmission and protect the county’s immunocompromised population, Lindley said.

Beyond this, “keep investing in your health,” Lindley said. “Stay healthy, continue to eat healthy, get sleep, get exercise. See your primary care doctor.”

“On the mental health side, our community has been through a lot,” he added. “People are burnt out. There’s high levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse in our community. So, everybody be kind and loving and if you notice people that need help, get them help, refer them to a behavioral health provider.”

Vail Health and its subsidiary Colorado Mountain Medical are reducing the frequency of COVID-19 vaccine clinics as the mass vaccination model is no longer needed at this time, Lindley said. Vaccines are still available through Eagle County Public Health, at Colorado Mountain Medical clinics and at all pharmacies in Eagle County.

Moving forward, the idea is that COVID-19 vaccines will be offered by pharmacies and primary care providers in a routine fashion similar to flu vaccines.

COVID-19 is “now readily established in our community and worldwide,” Lindley said. “It will continue to be with us probably for as long as we live.” Public health experts are hopeful that, as COVID-19 continues to circulate and mutate across the globe, the new variants that emerge will become milder with time as was the case with the flu virus.

“That’s the hope, but it’s not known,” Lindley said.

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