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Eagle County sees dramatic jump in COVID-19 cases

Rapid increase is likely due to presence of fast-spreading omicron variant in the county, public health leaders say

Vail Health nurse Nicole Campbell administers a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Jordon Nicholson at Vail Health Hospital in April.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

After four weeks of declining positivity rates, Eagle County is seeing a “dramatic increase” in COVID-19 infections, which local public health leaders say is evidence that the new rapidly spreading omicron variant is present in the county.

A new study out of South Africa on the variant, as well as mounting data, has aided local leaders in preparing for what is coming, and very likely already here, said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health.

The first alarm bells began ringing this week when the county’s test positivity rate — the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive — went from under 10% to over 20% in a matter of two days, Lindley said.



“So, that is a clear indication to us that a wave is beginning,” Lindley said. “Our working assumption is omicron is co-circulating in our community with delta, and that we will see a rapid increase in infectivity over the next few weeks.”

Early data indicates that the doubling time of the omicron variant — the time it takes for two cases to become four and so on — is only two days, Lindley said.



“That is much, much faster than anything we have seen today,” Lindley said. “In fact, it is much faster than any infectious disease that, in our lifetime, we have dealt with.”

Given the pace at which cases in Eagle County have risen over the past week, Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon agreed that it is prudent to assume that omicron is already circulating within the county, especially given that the variant was recently detected in Garfield County.

Vail Health sends a portion of samples from positive COVID-19 tests to the state for “genetic sequencing” used to track the presence of new variants, Lindley said. Local officials have yet to receive word of a confirmed case of the omicron variant in Eagle County, but this is not surprising given that genetic sequencing results come back about a month after being sent, he said.

The omicron variant had been identified in 57 countries and 19 U.S. states, including Colorado, as of earlier this week.

Recent trends represent a significant reversal of local metrics going into the Thanksgiving holiday, so Harmon encouraged people to take this into account while planning trips or gathering with family and friends.

The upside is that Eagle County public health experts learned quite a bit from leading the community through being one of the first COVID-19 hot spots in the country when the pandemic began last year, said Caitlyn Ngam, an infection preventionist at Vail Health.

Eagle County Public Health and Vail Health are taking a proactive approach to strengthening precautions at the right moments, which — unfortunately — is now, she said.

COVID-19 testing pushed to the limit

Vail Health is very close to exceeding its testing capacity as more people get sick and many seek precautionary testing before traveling or seeing relatives, Ngam said Thursday.

The county put out a “public health advisory” Friday afternoon “due to sharp increase of COVID-19 in Eagle County,” according to an Eagle County alert.

“Testing capacity is limited at this time,” the alert reads. “Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Stay home if sick.”

Ngam and Lindley predicted that the county’s COVID-19 testing capacity will likely be overrun in the coming weeks, if not days. They suggested that residents sign up to receive at-home tests through the state’s free “rapid at-home testing program,” for which registration can be found at covid19.colorado.gov/covid-19-testing-at-home.

If the county does run out of COVID-19 tests or testing appointments, we may see a false “plateau” of cases, where it will look like the current increase in cases has leveled out, Ngam said. It will be important to pay more attention to the county’s test positivity rate as an indicator of community spread rather than the number of new cases, as many may go undetected.

Chris Felton of Pasadena, Calif., wears a mask when ordering a beer at Vail Brewing Company in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

Eagle County Commissioners voted to extend the county’s mask mandate through Jan. 17 in a special meeting held Friday morning. The mandate applies to schools and public transportation, but Harmon said it is a good time for business owners to consider whether they wish to put their own rules in place as a surge in cases is beginning.

While the county is hoping to move away from public health mandates as soon as possible, the extra month of a mask mandate will give officials time to gather more data and see how holiday gatherings and travel impact local trends, Harmon said.

Omicron’s impact on vaccines

Parents should consider getting their 5- to 12-year-old children vaccinated now that they are eligible, and residents should make sure they are vaccinated and have gotten their booster shots, Harmon said.

Initial data has also shown that two doses of the Pfizer/Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson and Johnson does not provide the same level of protection against omicron as previous variants, Lindley said.

The recent South Africa study conducted by Discovery Health showed that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine provided only about 33% immunity to the new variant.

However, getting a booster shot increases that immunity level to about 70-75%, Harmon said, meaning it is more important now than ever to get the additional shot.

Fortunately, over 90% of Eagle County residents over the age of 5 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Harmon said. As the omicron variant continues to spread, the county will need to be able to fall back on its high vaccination rate, he said.

Colorado Mountain Medical has added an additional day of vaccine clinics, which are held at the entity’s facility in Eagle on Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They are now also available on the second and fourth Monday of each month from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on the first and third Monday of each month from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. More information can be found at http://www.vailhealth.org/covid-19/vaccines.

Local hospital capacity

Vail Health has also increased precautions for hospital and medical staff by requiring higher-level masks, increased distancing and less in-person meetings, Lindley said. The hospital is also making sure staff get booster shots.

Of the Vail Health employees who work in person, all are fully vaccinated besides three staff members with religious exemptions, Lindley said.

Protecting health care professionals will be crucial to protecting the community over the next few weeks, Ngam said. There will be no shortage of hospital beds amid this latest surge, but staffing hospital beds is, and has always been, the bigger challenge.

“We have a national shortage of nurses and care techs,” Lindley said. “We’ve seen 18% of that workforce leave in the last two years across the country. … So, that has really limited the overall health care infrastructure in this country.”

“Our individual risk with omicron might not be shifting as much as risks to our larger societal systems and health care stresses,” Lindley said in a written statement.

Vail Health has “a lot” of vacancies that it has been trying to fill, but it is “staffed appropriately” for the winter season. The hospital typically staffs up in the winter when, of course, Eagle County’s population swells and, thus, there is a natural increase in sickness and injury. Hospital officials are focusing much of their efforts on keeping the staff they do have feeling healthy, supported and ready to serve the broader community, Vail Health spokeswoman Sally Welsh said.

There were only four patients with COVID-19 at Vail Hospital, as of late Thursday afternoon, with a fifth on the way, Lindley said.

Still, the hospital is currently taking in patients from other counties as the strain on hospitals across the state deepens. Eagle County has only just noticed a steep increase in cases, meaning it will likely be 10-14 days until this increase begins to impact hospital capacity locally, Ngam said.

Early data also seems to indicate that illness from the omicron variant is less severe than previous variants, but Lindley said it is really too soon to say for sure.

“The biggest concern I would have this upcoming holiday season is that we let our guard down and we don’t take omicron seriously and we see a lot more transmission,” Harmon said. “We know it’s difficult to maintain some of these precautions at a time when we’re really wanting to celebrate and enjoy the time with our family and our close friends. So, those are some of the key pieces is really just trying to endure a bit longer with these precautions.”

In short, all three local public health professionals recommended that residents continue taking precautions wherever possible, get their booster shots and thank a health care worker for all they are doing to keep us safe and healthy this holiday season.


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