COVID-19 transmission in Eagle County remains elevated heading into Thanksgiving
While local transmission has seen a recent dip, it’s not likely to stay that way heading into and following next week’s holiday
Coronavirus remains a force to be reckoned with, not only in Eagle County, but across the state of Colorado. And while local transmission has seen a recent dip, it’s not likely to stay that way heading into and following Thanksgiving.
“The past 10 days, we’ve seen a slight decrease in COVID transmission, but we still remain at an elevated level of spread,” said Heath Harmon, the director of Eagle County Public Health and the Environment. “With the holiday upon us, we typically see increases after each holiday and so there’s no reason to believe that we would expect anything different after the Thanksgiving holiday.”
The somewhat “good news,” according to Harmon, is that the county’s current incidence rate is slightly lower than it was at this same time last year. As of Friday, Nov. 19, Eagle County had an incidence rate of 302 cases per 100,000. Last year, by the same date, the rate was at 433 cases per 100,000.
“We do have vaccines this year, which we didn’t have for last Thanksgiving,” he said.
For those heading out of state or planning to travel for the holiday next Thursday, Harmon recommends caution.
“We want everyone to have a safe Thanksgiving. It’s important to know that the rates for COVID in Eagle County are higher than most other locations in the United States right now,” he said. “We don’t want people taking COVID with them if they’re traveling. And so if they’re sick or if they’re recently been exposed to somebody confirmed to have COVID-19, we want them to stay home.”
Another precaution, aside from being aware of symptoms, is sticking to small groups and also, Harmon added, getting vaccinated, which includes getting a booster dose, if eligible.
“I would highly recommend for anybody 18 years of age and older who has not yet gotten their booster, they should consider getting it as soon as they can,” he said.
Eligibility for the booster shot depends on when vaccinated individuals over 18 received their last shot. For those who received either Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, they can receive the booster six months after their last dose. For those who received Johnson & Johnson, they are eligible two months after their last dose.
These booster shots help boost individual’s overall immunity, which wanes over time.
“We’ve known and continue to see that the immunity from vaccinations will wane over time. And you see that start to decrease even more rapidly once you get beyond six months,” Harmon said. “That said, we see similar trends with people that have gotten infected, we see the immunity gained from infection still start to drop off after six or more months. And so, that’s just important to understand, that immunity from either infection or from vaccination still has some limitations.”
However, there still remains a “dramatic difference” in the rate of infection between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals as well as the infection’s severity.
“It’s dramatically higher among those that are unvaccinated,” Harmon said, adding that hospitalizations are “where that risk is even more pronounced for community members that are not vaccinated.”
Harmon noted that over the past two months, between 78% and 82% of Coloradans who are hospitalized are unvaccinated.
Hospitals remain one of the greatest areas of concern as cases in Colorado remain high. Statewide, only 5% of ICU beds are available. Currently, Eagle County has five community members hospitalized with the COVID-19 virus.
“Hospitals across the state are as stressed or more stressed than at any time during this pandemic,” wrote Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer. “The stress comes from the following issues: We have seen the largest exodus of health care providers in history; during the past two years, patients have delayed routine care, causing them to show up at hospitals sicker and requiring more care than ever; and lastly, we continue to see a large influx of unvaccinated individuals whom are getting severely ill with COVID-19, filling critical bed space.”
Currently, Harmon said many of the local outbreaks are coming from the school-aged populations, something that is also seen throughout the state.
“With the delta variant, it continues to demonstrate how easy it is to spread, and over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen this more and more in our school-aged kids — particularly in our 5 to 10 and 11 to 13 year old age groups,” Harmon said. “That’s where we have a lot of that population still unvaccinated and then vulnerable for developing infection.”
Kids between the ages of 5 to 11 recently became eligible for a pediatric dosage of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. In the two weeks since, Harmon said that this age group has reached about a 13% vaccination rate — on par with the rest of the state.
And while facial coverings are still required in all Pre-K through eighth grade school buildings, transmission is occurring largely in out-of-school events and gatherings for these age groups.
“The risk of transmission elsewhere in the community — for youths that are going to be participating in other activities outside of schools — are still areas that we see transmission taking place,” Harmon said, adding that this includes any extracurricular activities from sports to clubs.
This week, in neighboring Pitkin County, a large outbreak — with 71 confirmed cases as of Friday, Nov. 19 — occurred in connection with hockey games played by both adults and kids, players and spectators. While the outbreak was the largest that Pitkin County has seen in the entire pandemic, it has impacted other counties — namely Eagle, Garfield and Routt counties — as teams from these participated in the tournament where the outbreak occurred.
So far, Harmon said, Eagle County is not seeing spikes related to this incidence. He added that, “I don’t have the level of detail on our current cases to know if we have our own community members that are also developing illness related to that outbreak. I know it has expanded beyond just Pitkin County.”
As we head into winter, and into the rise of more indoor sporting events, Harmon added that the No. 1 precaution for athletes and spectators is vaccination, and for all participants, especially spectators, to pay attention and take precautions such as masks when the community incidence rate is higher.
Currently, at Eagle County Schools, masks are required for all middle school indoor athletics for the duration of the public health order, currently in place through Dec. 17.
The new, new normal
Throughout the pandemic, many have noted a “new normal” brought on by COVID-19 — however, the virus is and will be our normal for quite some time.
“COVID is not going away, it’s going to be with us for a while,” Harmon said, later adding that it is “certainly not in our past.”
Which means, the same precautions — vaccines, masks, socializing in small groups, etc. — that have been effective in the past 19 months have not really changed.
“Vaccinations remain one of the strongest precautions we can take as a community and as an individual,” Harmon said. “I would encourage the community just to remain aware of those case rates and when they are at elevated levels, like they are currently, we just take some added precautions.”
However, moving forward, the county’s public health department does not plan on implementing any future public health orders — instead, envisioning an environment where individuals take these precautions on their own.
“It’s important for us to continue to think about the precautions we need to take and how to normalize that within a community,” Harmon said. “What we don’t want to do is rely only on public health orders for protecting the community against COVID. We need to get to that space where we’re just paying attention to the incidence rates and we’re taking our individual precautions when those rates are higher, so we can do our job to help protect the community and ourselves.”
Harmon noted that while the first precaution should be getting vaccinated, including getting a booster if eligible, also watching for high rates in the community and acting accordingly is essential. For example, when the incidence rate rises above 300 cases per 100,000, local public health recommends that all individuals wear face coverings in indoor public settings.
In Eagle County, residents and visitors can track the local incidence rates and COVID-19 data trends on EagleCountycovid.org.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.