New omicron subvariant expected to make waves in Eagle County in coming weeks |

New omicron subvariant expected to make waves in Eagle County in coming weeks

Local health, school leaders speak on precautions for highly contagious omicron subvariant

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Las Vegas. The XBB.1.5 subvariant — nicknamed the “kraken” — is quickly becoming the most dominant strain of the virus, and it’s already arrived in Colorado and Eagle County.
AP archive

There’s a new omicron subvariant bringing COVID-19 waves across the world and country. The XBB.1.5 subvariant — nicknamed the “kraken” — is quickly becoming the most dominant strain of the virus, and it’s already arrived in Colorado and Eagle County.

“We’re going to continue to keep an eye on the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant, which is something that we’ve been seeing for several weeks taking hold in the northeast part of the U.S.,” said Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s director of public health. “What is now starting to happen is we’re seeing that variant and subvariant moving south and west. We know that it’s already here in Colorado and in Eagle County and so as this takes hold we would expect to see an increase of COVID-19 infection over the next several weeks.”

Current COVID-19 infections in the community, while lower than in the first half of December, are “more elevated” than the levels the community saw in the fall, according to Harmon.

Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, said that while Eagle County has “not yet seen a significant wave,” there has been a “slight uptick in COVID hospitalizations.”

“At this time, we are not worried about additional COVID hospitalizations. We are only averaging one or fewer COVID patients hospitalized per day at Vail Health,” Lindley said. “However, we are monitoring staff illness every day and are prepared for additional staff illnesses with COVID, (especially) during the next four to six weeks.”

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These hospitalizations remain “stable and lower than the state average,” Harmon added. 

As local public health and health care professionals prepare for an increase in community transmission of COVID-19 as a result of this new subvariant, the wave is not expected to look like the original omicron variant spike last year.

“This particular subvariant is more infectious than any previous variants that we’ve seen thus far, and so that will definitely lead to increased transmission,” Harmon said. “However, there are a few silver linings with this, in that we don’t see this causing more severe illness, and some of the treatment with antivirals that we have currently in place continues to be effective.”

For individuals that are at higher risk for severe disease associated with COVID-19, Harmon recommended consulting with their health care providers early on when they develop an illness so that they can have access to treatments, such as these antivirals.

There continues to be a recommendation for vaccinations, particularly the bivalent booster, which “does actually increase some of the neutralizing antibodies for this particular subvariant,” Harmon said.

“(Vaccinations do) a good job in preventing infections and decreasing the amount of viral load that a person might have, even if they do get infected and it does extremely well in preventing severe disease,” he added.

While public health is not tracking vaccination rates as much as it had historically, Harmon said that the Eagle County rates for the bivalent booster are “definitely lower” than previous boosters and vaccinations, following a trend in the rest of the country. 

Being prepared

Much has changed since the first onset of COVID-19 in Eagle County. Not only have vaccinations been introduced, but the methods of testing, tracking and monitoring disease spread have evolved as well. Now, local officials are relying predominantly on wastewater surveillance and hospitalizations to track disease spread.

Even as Eagle County is expected to have a wave of COVID hit the community in the coming weeks, Harmon said he does not expect a return of public health orders.

“What we’ve learned about the virus itself is it’s going to continue to mutate. It’s going to continue to find new variations that make it more transmissible, but what we’ve continued to see is that with each one of those new variants, we continue to see that the severity piece remains stable or decreases a little bit,” Harmon said. “It’s just the ebb and flow of COVID-19.”

While each variant is different, there are still precautions that public health recommends community members take. The “key precaution” is to get a bivalent booster, Harmon said, adding that additionally if you get sick, stay home. Current recommendations state that should an individual test positive for COVID-19, they should isolate for five days.

A patient gets a COVID-19 vaccine in Eagle County. Eagle County is expected to have a wave of COVID hit in the coming weeks, but the county’s public director said he does not expect a return of public health orders.
Vail Health/Courtesy photo

Lindley added that one main precaution is taking care of your mental and physical health.

“With the threat of long-term assaults of SARS-COV2 infections, we hope more will be inspired and motivated to take better care of themselves daily to improve their physical and mental performance and health,” he said.

Preparing for the spike in schools

One of the biggest impacts of the looming COVID-19 wave could be staffing at local businesses and organizations, including health care and schools, Harmon said.

At last week’s Eagle County School District Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman gave his first COVID update in several months. Citing the same national trends with the new omicron subvariant, Qualman said that while the district was prepared for a local wave, it was “no cause for alarm.”

“Another key thing to point out is, since we were really in the throws of COVID, we have boosted our capacity to handle health issues,” Qualman said. “In terms of focusing on wellness and health, we’ve really staffed up, so we’re in a better position to manage that than we were before.”

To make his point, Qualman brought up some new positions — including a director of health services and district wellness coordinator — as well as the district’s fully-staffed nursing team, which at one point was heavily impacted during COVID.

Despite these strides and preparation, the district’s “Achilles heel” remains its ability to staff guest teachers, Qualman added.

“As disease does start to spread in our community, in our kids and then through our teachers, our ability to keep schools open will really just hinge on our ability to have the adults to be in the building to safely run school,” he said.

Qualman added that should the district not have enough adults to run its schools safely and effectively, “we will have to consider transitions to temporary remote or virtual learning in the smallest possible cohort — so if that’s a classroom level or a grade level or a school level — try to keep that as contained as we possibly can, and for as short a duration as we possibly can.”

Qualman reiterated that he didn’t believe there was an “imminent problem” but rather wanted to acknowledge the risks of the new variant and that the district is “prepared in the event we need to pivot.”

For information about what to do if you have COVID-19 as well as information on where to get vaccinated and tested (including where to get at-home test kits) locally, visit To learn about the availability of statewide testing and treatment resources (including for individuals without insurance), visit

14 ways to maintain and improve your health

From Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population officer, here are 14 established lifestyle practices to stay healthy:

  • Eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats (while avoiding foods with added sugars)
  • Exercise regularly, including both cardio and strength training activities
  • Get enough sleep, aiming for 7-9 hours per night
  • Manage stress through meditation, yoga, time in nature and breath work
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water (15.5 cups (3.7 liters) daily for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women)
  • Avoid that which harms you (including tobacco and alcohol consumption as well as added sugar to any product)
  • See a healthcare professional regularly for annual wellness exams, blood work and screenings
  • Stay up on recommended vaccinations.
  • Practice good hygiene, including washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • Stay home when you are sick, resting to recover quickly
  • Take prescribed medications as directed by your healthcare provider
  • Seek help from a mental health professional or peer group if you are struggling mentally, such as with anxiety, depression or PTSD
  • Stay connected with others; Spend time with friends and family, and consider joining a support group or seeking therapy if you feel overwhelmed
  • Spend 20 to 30 minutes outdoors in direct sunlight each day

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