Even past delta spike, Eagle County COVID-19 cases are ‘higher than we want’
Local public health department continues to build toward exit strategy from public health orders
Even though the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped since the delta variant spike in late August, Eagle County is still experiencing a high level of transmission in the community.
“We seem to be at a high plateau right now for COVID cases,” said Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director. “We’ve been in a similar space, really since the end of September, where we’ve been somewhere between 170 cases per 100,000 upwards to 225 cases per 100,000 — it’s higher than we want to be at.”
As of Friday, the one-week incident rate was at 187 cases per 100,000, according to the county’s COVID-19 monitoring dashboard. During the delta spike in late August, the community was around 295 cases per 100,000, Harmon said.
“We’re higher than what we want to be because there’s still a fair amount of transmission,” he said. “We came down from that spike, and then unfortunately instead of going back to a level that we saw in the mid or earlier parts of the summer, we’ve just remained at this higher level of transmission.”
He added that if anything, over the past few weeks, Eagle County and the state has seen “a bit of an increase.”
Part of the reason Harmon believes the county has yet to drop back to the summer incidence rates — which were below 50 cases per 100,000 — is that “maintaining a lot of these healthier habits, these precautions around spreading COVID are just challenging for all our community members,” he said. Those habits and precautions include masking and vaccines.
However, local vaccination rates remain a bright spot in the community. The county has continued to see an increase in its immunization rate for the overall community. This immunity, Harmon said, is the most important factor in decreasing ongoing transmission and spread and the likelihood for severe disease.
“I think one of the things that we are still seeing a benefit from is our higher vaccination status, because we’re not at levels as high as many other counties are,” Harmon said. “As we’ve learned over the past several months, [the vaccine] may not prevent every single illness, but it does a remarkable job at decreasing the likelihood of infection, decreasing spread within a community and then decreasing the likelihood for severe disease.”
The Federal Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week authorized booster shots for the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines. Booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine were authorized by these same federal agencies in September for certain individuals. For information on booster shot eligibility and local availability, visit EagleCountyCovid.org and its vaccine information page.
Locally, these numbers have also meant a decrease in the number of hospitalizations. According to its COVID-19 dashboard, the county has had 13 days of declining or stable hospitalizations with one person currently hospitalized as of Thursday. Statewide hospitalizations, however, tell a different story.
“The health care system really is an ecosystem and our support comes from other larger hospital systems that are on the Front Range,” Harmon said. “And that’s a threat right now, for any of us in the community.”
Statewide, he said that ICU utilization is at 93%, meaning that only “7% of ICU beds are available throughout the state of Colorado should somebody in our community need that, whether it’s due to a COVID infection or a terrible auto accident.”
School mask mandate
While the current incident rate is lower than it was Aug. 16 when the public health order went into effect for masks in schools, it’s not enough to call off the order in schools, Harmon said.
“One thing that’s currently in place with this order is if we can decrease the incidence rate to less than 50 cases per 100,000 over seven days and can maintain that, then that requirement for masks would switch to a recommendation,” he said.
And there might be significant changes on the horizon that could help this happen sooner rather than later. Harmon expects that federal authorization, recommendations and guidance for vaccinating kids ages 5 to 11 years old is coming, “maybe as early as Nov. 5.”
This, Harmon said, will be key as the county “continues to build toward an exit strategy from public health orders.”
Being able to immunize kids between the ages of 5 and 11 “will further increase the immunization rate for the overall community,” he said.
As COVID-19 immunity continues to grow in the community — whether through the authorization of vaccines for the youngest population, continued vaccination, or through recent infections — it could help decrease the threshold for repealing the public health order in schools.
“We’ll continue to look at those thresholds and make modifications that fit the needs and interests within our community,” Harmon said.
Heading into winter
As the local community preps for ski season — and the influx of visitors it brings — public health officials wish is that residents will begin to increase awareness around disease spread in the community.
“Let’s face it, when visitors come into our community, we’re not sure what their vaccination status is,” Harmon said. “What we really want to be able to do, over the next couple of months, is really to start to normalize where to get your information, what to pay attention to, when you should think about wearing masks and when is it OK to not be concerned about masks or transmission in a community.”
What this means, he elaborated, is that as transmission and case rates creep higher — closer to the 300 cases per 100,000 range — community members should know what to do to stay safe from infection, without mandates.
“That’s a point in time where everyone in our community — vaccinated or not, if they’ve been infected eight months ago or not — should consider wearing face coverings when we go into public, indoor settings,” he said.
On the flip side, community members would understand when it is safe to be indoors without a mask.
Even as the local public health department seeks to normalize community behavior and response, it is not going anywhere as a resource and will continue its efforts to boost immunity.
“We’re absolutely going to continue to make recommendations and support vaccinations. That’s a pathway where we know we can improve immunity without disease — and that’s a win-win,” Harmon said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.