Eagle County sees a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations as delta variant rages
The highly transmissible delta variant coupled with visitors and other impacts are leading to a rise in local breakthrough COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and spread
Over the weekend, Eagle County experienced a significant increase in the number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19. With seven people currently hospitalized, this is the highest level of hospitalization the county has seen since last December, said Heath Harmon, the director of Eagle County Public Health and the Environment.
The rise in hospitalizations comes as the county sees a significant increase in the prominence of the COVID-19 delta variant.
“When we see high rates of spread in the community, we’re going to see a whole host of other impacts on our community, whether that’s higher hospitalization rates, impacts within our schools, our childcare centers or impacts within our workplace environments where we have more people that are absent because of illness or because of an exposure,” Harmon said.
In Eagle County, the beginning of this summer was met with the withdrawal of public health orders mandating masks and implementing capacity restrictions. However, as summer went on, the delta variant spread, causing incidence rates, hospitalizations and breakthrough cases all to rise.
The “highly infectious” nature of the delta variant is the “primary contributor” to these increases, Harmon said. Currently, the disease incidence rate is at about 255 cases per 100,000. That’s a stark contrast to this same time last summer — when all restrictions were in place — when the county’s incidence rate was around 35 cases per 100,000.
Participate in The Longevity Project
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
While Harmon doesn’t yet know the “makeup” of the seven individuals currently hospitalized, he did note the trend of cases for those who are vaccinated versus those that remain unvaccinated. According to Harmon, this year, from Jan. 1 through Aug. 15 there have been 63 total community members hospitalized from COVID-19. Of these 63, only three were vaccinated and the remaining 60 were unvaccinated.
“What we’ve been seeing consistently through this year is less than 5% that are hospitalized as a result of COVID-19 infections are vaccinated,” he said. “We have a vaccine that’s highly effective that can decrease infections and decrease the spread — it’s still our primary tool to protect ourselves within Eagle County.”
Just this week, the Federal Drug Administration approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, making it the first to be authorized by the administration.
Breakthrough cases of COVID-19 — that is positive cases of COVID-19 with vaccinated individuals — have been rising. Harmon noted that these breakthrough cases are often mirroring a high level of vaccination in a community.
“It sounds counterintuitive, but when you have a highly infectious variant like delta and the majority of individuals are vaccinated in a community, you’ll start to see a little bit of a kick up in terms of the number of vaccinated individuals getting sick,” he said, adding that over the last two months the breakthrough cases have accounted for between 15% and 25% of all positive cases depending on the week.
Recently, the county, following federal guidance, authorized the use of a third booster COVID-19 vaccine to immunocompromised residents who wish to receive them. According to Harmon, whether booster shots will be authorized for the general public remains up to final decisions from the FDA and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
“I think what we continue to hear is that there is an expectation that eventually booster doses would be made available to the general public and that will be dependent upon the length of time from when you completed the series the first time,” he said. “We’re just awaiting that guidance.”
Impacts of visitors
While Eagle County boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the state — 86% of age-eligible residents have received at least one dose and 77% are fully vaccinated — there is still some concern as to whether this rate is impacted by travelers and tourists.
“It’s important for us to understand as visitors are coming in from a whole host of different communities and we don’t know their vaccination status, it is going to play a role. If individuals are coming in with a lower vaccination rate, it will decrease the effective vaccination rate for our entire community,” Harmon said.
Harmon added that the public health department has been taking into consideration these visitors throughout the pandemic, and will continue to do so.
“We’re a visitor-based economy, it’s the very fabric of our community,” Harmon said. “We’ve constantly been trying to adjust our local precautions in a way that meets the needs of our community and takes into consideration the travelers, where they’re coming from and what those impacts are going to be in our community.”
Across the county, towns have been experiencing higher numbers of tourists, with hotels setting occupancy records in July and August, according to an email from Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership. As the county heads into winter and the impending ski season, Romer added that it’s safe to say that hotels in Vail and Avon “are pacing well ahead for the fall and winter as well.”
The rise in visitors could also impact local hospitals and clinics as they continue to battle the virus.
“If we were to look at the number of individuals who are going in for testing, individuals who are showing up in urgent care, individuals who are showing up at the emergency department, we know that there’s going to be a fair amount of visitors that are showing up in those clinics to seek care,” Harmon said.
Harmon did note that while the infectious nature of the delta variant is the main factor causing local numbers to rise, he added there is likely a connection with higher rates of travel as well.
“I think anytime that we see an increase in travel, whether it’s for our residents that are traveling elsewhere or when it’s travelers coming into our community, we do see higher levels of transmission,” he said.
School mask mandate
According to Harmon, as incidence rates climb and the delta variant rises in prominence, the county’s main priority is “keeping schools open five days a week for in-person learning.”
Due to the the recent rise in community incidence rates, Eagle County Public Health implemented a public health order on Monday, Aug. 16. The order requires masks for students, staff and visitors while indoors at schools where there are large numbers of youth that are not yet eligible for vaccination against COVID-19.
According to a statement on the order from Eagle County Public Health, with the high transmissibility of the delta variant and high spread in the community, there was the potential impact on schools, staff and students resulting in quarantines, class-level remote learning and high absenteeism — something that was experienced last year.
In order to keep schools open, the statement said, the mask requirement was implemented to mitigate the likelihood for those impacts.
“Over the summertime, we had very low incidence rates and so we saw less of an impact on summer school, on summer camps and child care,” Harmon said. “But once our incidence rate got above 125 cases per 100,000 in the last week of July is when we started to see impacts to our child care centers.”
According to Public Health’s statement, the department investigated three outbreaks in child care centers between Aug. 9 and Aug. 20. Since Aug. 9, the department has also documented three instances where children have spread COVID-19 infection to other household members.
“Data and local experience are emerging that indicate younger children can play a more significant role than originally thought,” read the statement.
On Sept. 15, this public health order will be re-evaluated. According to Harmon, this decision will hinge on several factors including transmission rates or the incidence rates in the community, any other important demographics in terms of age groups that are more highly impacted, as well as the severity and the impact on the medical system.
Specifically, the department will look at “any changes in the incidence rates for youth that might not be eligible for vaccination yet,” he said.
“Our experience in Eagle County continues to demonstrate that when we see higher transmission at the community level, we see a number of other areas of our normal life that are impacted,” Harmon said. “It’s just important that we all play a role in trying to decrease the amount of spread in our community and we all are impacted when that rate is higher compared to when it’s lower.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.