COVID-19 spike continues to strain resources in Eagle County
Vail Health continues to see rising hospitalizations, including for pediatric cases
Since mid-December, Eagle County has seen its highest transmission of COVID-19 thanks to the latest variant of the virus — and it’s not over yet.
“Our community transmission remains extremely high,” said Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s public health director, in a phone interview Tuesday. “This upcoming week, we’ll expect it to remain really high.”
Harmon, in comparing this most recent surge to previous spikes of the virus in Eagle County, said that past spikes brought the “equivalent of a school bus of COVID patients on a daily basis, so that’s 35 to 50 on a daily basis.”
This most recent surge, however, has brought “the equivalent of two 737s, fully loaded with new COVID patients coming into our community each day.”
And yet, neither Harmon nor Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population officer, feel that we’re at the peak for this latest surge.
“I think we’re close, but I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily there yet,” Lindley said, adding that testing sites are still seeing positivity rates between 45% and 50%.
“That’s a really clear indication of how rapidly it’s continuing to spread,” he said. “To put it another way, one in two people that we test in this community have COVID-19 right now. So until that starts coming down, we will not know if we’re at the peak or not.”
Bringing these numbers down, Harmon said, will rely on everyone in the community playing their part.
“We all play a role in helping our community decrease that spread faster,” he said. “We will be on a downward trend in the not too distant future, as long as we can all continue to play our role and take precautions, we might be able to help find that downward trend faster for Eagle County.”
These precautions, he added, include staying home when sick and wearing face coverings in public for the next several weeks.
“That will decrease the number of people that may be exposed and then further develop COVID-19,” Harmon said.
Hospitalizations tick up
The continued presence of the omicron variant in the community is continuing to add strain to nearly all community resources, Harmon said, including restaurants, retailers schools, as well as hospitals and the local health care system.
Lindley said that the hospital is still seeing numbers trending up, specifically with regard to hospitalizations. As of Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., Lindley said Vail Health had a total of eight COVID-19 hospitalizations — the most its had hospitalized in the past 18 months of the pandemic.
“Most concerning is one of those that is hospitalized is a 6-month-old,” Lindley said. “Because those under 5 do not have the protections of vaccinations, our concern (with omicron) was that we’d see an increase in pediatric cases, and that’s in fact what we’ve seen.”
Lindley said that Vail Health has seen four kids under the age of 5 in the community hospitalized in the past two weeks, four more than the hospital has seen in the previous two years of the pandemic.
“Parents that have kids under 5 just need to be aware of that, and this virus is not mild; we are in fact seeing hospitalizations,” he said, adding that if parents are going out in the community to use precautions to not bring home the virus.
“But most importantly, if the kids start to get sick at all with any illness, bring them in right away to see their primary care provider, bring them in to see their pediatrician; if you don’t have a pediatrician, bring them into our urgent care sites. We’ll check them out, we’ll make sure they’re OK, because the sooner we can get an eye on them, make sure they’re OK, the better the outcome is going to be.”
While little was known about the latest variant just over a month ago, now local health professionals are starting to gain some knowledge about omicron — beginning with its infectious nature.
“This is by far the most infectious respiratory illness we have ever encountered,” Lindley said.
However, Lindley also emphasized that greater notions that omicron is a milder illness are misconstrued.
“That is not what we’re seeing,” Linley said. “It is milder if you are fully vaccinated and boosted. However, if you are not fully vaccinated and boosted — or, a better way of saying it, up to date on your vaccinations — it is not milder, and those are the folks we are most concerned with.”
Harmon reiterated this, stating that rather than looking at national media headlines, it’s important to “focus on what our local data tells us around severity.”
“We’re going to continue to see individuals who are not vaccinated be at greater risk for severe disease,” he said. “And with the sheer volume of cases in our community, it’s going to continue to strain our hospital system, and we will see high hospitalizations.”
Understanding local data comes with its own set of challenges, however. While the county keeps track of local COVID-19 data, the numbers don’t always tell the full story of what’s happening in the community, as its monitoring and data dashboard only tracks resident data.
“We’re not counting all the visitors, we’re not counting everybody that’s doing the home tests,” Lindley said. “It’s way under-reported of what is being presented. So even though it’s alarming to see that large case rate, it’s much bigger than what it actually is (showing).”
Not only that, but testing resources were limited on recent holidays, and Lindley said that as testing ramps back up this week, “you’re going to see those numbers shoot right back up to those 300 cases in the valley, every single day.”
Aside from the number of hospitalizations, Vail Health is facing a few other strains on its resources. As of Tuesday morning, the hospital had 65 employees out with active COVID-19, Lindley said. It hit its highest number in the pandemic — 72 employees out — last Friday. However, so far, the hospital has been able to manage these absences with 18 traveling nurses sent by the state.
Plus, Eagle County is also facing shortages of testing resources as cases continue to rise.
“The testing demand is still exceeding the availability of testing resources in the community,” Lindley said. “We’re seeing this most acutely in our upvalley locations.”
Harmon noted that he expects the community to be “at capacity for testing over the next two weeks.”
At Vail Health, it has limited administration of its PCR tests to its emergency department and its in patients. Plus, Lindley said, at Colorado Mountain Medical, it is transitioning to molecular tests, specifically Abbott ID Now tests, “to preserve our PCR tests again for our emergency departments and for our in patients.”
With this, Vail Health has “more than enough tests on hand for all of our patient needs in our system, and we’ve taken that move now to ensure that we have that long-term, and we don’t run out for our patients,” Lindley added.
With these shortages and changes, more residents are relying on at-home antigen tests to test for the virus. However, Lindley noted that individuals should be “swabbing deep into their throat, as well as into their nose,” adding that this will present much more accurate test results.
Last week, Lindley also reported that the hospital was facing a shortage of monoclonal antibodies, a newer treatment for those at high-risk for serious COVID-19 infection. As of Tuesday morning, however, it had 34 courses on hand. Lindley added that the hospital is using around 14 courses per day. In addition, the hospital is also receiving courses of Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid, of which it currently has 89 courses.
“We continue to work with Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment to get additional courses when we need them,” Lindley said, adding that each week that state has been sending more
Community and personal health
Even with the added strain, Vail Health has continued to be able to offer all its services.
“All of our operations are still running fully, no other services have been impacted — they’re strained and really it’s a story of great organizational flexibility; staff members are flexing across organizations and helping each other out, pulling nurses from one unit to help another,” Lindley said.
Not only that, but Lindley noted that this is aided by community members continuing to take care of their health, specifically through routine medical procedures.
“What we saw happen across the country during 2020 was people stopped going and getting medical care that they needed — what that has led to across the country is hospitals are, in general, fuller now than they’ve ever been, just caring for the declining underlining health of our population,” Lindley said.
“Here in this community, people did much better. They continued to go to their doctors, they continued to keep up with their health, and we’re seeing that now, where our hospital isn’t, if you will, busting at the seems like so many other hospitals are across the country.”
Continuing to maintain personal health will be critical moving forward, Lindley added.
“A lot of us everywhere in the country are pointing fingers: The testing infrastructure isn’t where it should be, the treatment infrastructure (monoclonal antibodies or antivirals) isn’t where it should be, and my counter to that is, but how is your health? Is it where it should be? Have you taken all the steps to be as healthy as you possibly can?” he said. “That’s the one thing each of us can control, so let’s first check that box, and then if that box is checked, I think it’s appropriate to look and see where there’s other potentials to improve our national system.”
The future of the pandemic
For months now, both Vail Health and Eagle County Public Health officials have been stating that COVID-19 is not going away, placing importance on the value of communities learning to live with the virus.
“COVID-19 is not going away, we have to learn to live with it, to be able to stay healthy with it,” Lindley said. “It’s going to continue to change, and none of us can predict how it will change, whether it becomes more severe or less, more transmissible or not — no one knows for sure, but the certainty is, it’s going to be with us, and it’s going to continue to come at us at different times.”
With this understanding, Harmon said that even as different variants bring uncertainty, precautions against COVID-19 have remained the same throughout the pandemic.
“We always just need to understand what the precautions are that help protect ourselves, helps protect our families and our community, whether that’s staying at home when you’re sick or wearing a face covering when you’re out in the public when rates are really high, getting vaccinated, getting boosted, all of these things are important; it will remain important in the coming months and in the coming years,” Harmon said.
And with this current surge — and any future spikes or increases — maintaining the course and these precautions will be critical.
“While we may see decreases in new cases a few weeks down the road, I think continued patience among all community members will be important as the level of service that we’re accustomed to will continue to be stressed with ongoing workforce shortages, as well as increases in those absenteeism rates,” Harmon said. “So we just need to maintain those precautions for a bit longer until we can start to get on that downward trend.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.