Omicron surge on the decline in Eagle County

COVID-19 spread remains high, but ‘now is a great time to be optimistic,’ local public health experts say

People wear masks as they grocery shop Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021 in Vail.
Kelly Getchonis/Courtesy Photo

With the latest surge of COVID-19 on the decline, local public health experts say it is time for Eagle County residents to take a collective deep breath.

From mid-December to the start of January, the omicron variant brought the highest transmission of COVID-19 the county has ever seen as the most contagious variant yet collided with increased tourism and holiday travel.

But now, some good news.

“We’ve seen a dramatic change over the last two weeks — all for the better,” Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health, said in an interview Thursday.

The average percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive results remains heightened at 28.8% as of Friday, but this is a significant improvement compared to the 50% test positivity rate at the peak of the surge, Lindley said.

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“There’s still a fair amount of this virus around in our community, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon said Friday.

The demand for tests is decreasing, which Lindley said is a good sign, and less people are walking into Vail Health Hospital and local urgent care clinics with COVID-19-like illness. Eagle County Public Health reported that local hospitalizations have been stable or decreasing for the last seven days straight.

“That doesn’t mean it’s down to zero but we’ve seen definitely a measurable decrease,” Lindley said.

Increased capacity to weather the storm

The most important mark of progress in combating this most recent surge is that, after a grueling few weeks, Vail Health and its subsidiary Colorado Mountain Medical are seeing more and more staff returning to work after COVID-19 infections, Lindley said.

At its peak, the surge brought “the equivalent of two 737s, fully loaded with new COVID patients coming into our community each day,” Harmon said in an interview at the start of the month.

At the same time, Vail Health had a peak of nearly 80 employees out with COVID-19 at one time, placing a great strain on hospital staffing levels and other resources.

The county uses color codes — green, yellow and red — to assess whether various sectors of essential public infrastructure have the capacity to continue operating properly amid COVID-19 surges. When omicron began rearing its head in the community on Dec. 20, the county’s “health and medical” sector was moved out of the green zone directly into the red, Harmon said.

This coding system was used to request support and resources from the state including rapid response teams for testing, staffing assistance and personal protective equipment — all of which helped the county maintain strong medical services through the surge, Harmon said.

Testing swabs are ready for use at the pop-up COVID-19 test location near the Welcome Center in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

As of Monday, Lindley said Vail Health had 43 staff out due to COVID-19 isolation — nearly half the number reported at the peak of the surge.

COVID-19 treatments like antivirals and monoclonal antibodies sent by the state remain in strong supply, Lindley said.

“We haven’t had to turn away a single patient for monoclonal antibody treatment. So, any individual in the community that meets the criteria for treatment we’ve been able to treat, which has been fantastic,” he said. “We’ve given over 350 courses of monoclonal antibodies to community members.”

Attendance at Colorado Mountain Medical’s weekly vaccine clinics has also declined, leading Lindley to believe that all county residents who want to be vaccinated have gotten the shot.

For Eagle County residents aged 16 to 19 as well as those aged 40 to 69, the county is reporting a vaccination rate of approximately 100% based on 2020 U.S. Census numbers, Harmon said. This represents residents who have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

All other age groups are reporting vaccination rates between 93% to 97% with the exception of children aged 5 to 11 years, the latest age group to be approved for vaccination, according to data provided by Harmon.

This is compared to a statewide average of just under 75% across all age groups, according to Colorado’s dashboard for vaccine data.

Strong vaccination rates and a higher level of overall health put Eagle County residents at an advantage for weathering the storm of the omicron variant, but transmission was still very high, Lindley said. It’s hard to imagine what the county’s COVID-19 metrics might have looked like if it were able to capture all of the visitors that contributed to transmission during one of the busiest times for tourism in the valley.

Los Amigos stays busy during the New Year’s holiday weekend in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“Definitely when we had all those visitors here during those two holiday weeks, there were many, many more cases per day than were reported on the county’s dashboard because essentially 50% of everybody we were testing was from out of town,” Lindley said.

“So, you can assume those numbers were probably closer to 600 local new cases per day — 500 or 600. It’s hard to know exactly … and many hospitalizations were not from Eagle County residents, they were from visitors.”

What we know and what we don’t know

For some, the unprecedented spread of omicron has brought a false sense of security — a feeling that most everyone in the community has been infected with one variant or another at this point so we must all have immunity.

While it is true that omicron brought more local infections than any other variant, the assertion that this has spread a blanket of herd immunity across the community that will endure through future surges is a fallacy, Lindley said.

It is important to understand that COVID-19 will continue to mutate as it spreads from person to person across the globe and, thus, new variants will continue to emerge, he said. Omicron happened to be more contagious and milder, but that does not mean the next variant will also present mild symptoms, he said.

“We all hope that ends up being the case but quite frankly, no one knows,” Lindley said.

We are not in a place where we should be thinking about COVID-19 like the flu as we know much less about COVID-19 and it is still proving to be more dangerous than the flu for certain demographics, Harmon said.

“All that said, I think we are moving to a place of this virus becoming more endemic as immunity continues to increase, primarily through vaccination, where we can prevent symptomatic illness and prevent spread,” Harmon said. “We should continue to see decreases in the level of severity. We should, in the future, see maybe lower peaks for future waves.”

A disease being “endemic” means that it persists within a population or an area, but has generally settled to a “relatively constant rate of occurrence.”

“Obviously, as new variants emerge…we will need to respond to the differences with each of those variants, but what we’re trying to do with vaccinations is really build that immunity for all community members,” Harmon said.

‘Now is a great time to be optimistic’

Eagle County residents should be proud of themselves and the way the community handled this latest surge, Lindley said.

“That doesn’t mean to drop all precautions and throw up our hands and celebrate that we made it through because COVID is here to stay … and omicron is still very much actively spreading in our community,” Lindley said.

“But the psychological impact of continuing to live on edge and go through our lives worrying about catching an infectious disease or, worse, giving an infectious disease to a loved one that can hurt them, is really hard for everybody,” he said. “…We have to learn to live with it in a way that is sustainable for us not only physically, taking the precautions you need to, but psychologically.”

Vail Health is fully supportive of the decision by Eagle County government to drop the county’s indoor mask mandate in schools and businesses, Lindley said.

Harmon said he is glad the county was able to navigate this latest surge such that we have the knowledge and the resources to transition away from the public health order.

“Spirits are down, people are stressed. It’s been a long haul,” Lindley said. “If we can get back to as much normalcy as possible, we know the psychological piece is going to be very beneficial.”

“Now is a great time to be optimistic, to be happy,” Lindley said. “We just got through the worst wave we’ve seen so far and things are rapidly getting better and people rallied and did the right things and we maintained our health infrastructure during that wave. We maintained in-person learning in schools and, for the most part, most businesses were able to stay open. It really was a win that the community should be proud about having gone through together.”

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