What the omicron variant means for COVID-19 trends heading into the holidays | VailDaily.com

What the omicron variant means for COVID-19 trends heading into the holidays

Eagle County public health experts: We are in a better place this holiday season

A bus driver wears a mask in Vail Village. Masks are still required on public transportation.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

COVID-19 cases in Eagle County were on a “slow but steady” decline leading up to Thanksgiving but are expected to level out or increase slightly in the coming weeks following the gatherings and travel that come with the holiday season.

Cases dropped about 25% over the two weeks leading up to the holiday, although the rate at which people were getting tested for COVID-19 dropped the week of Thanksgiving, said Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon on Thursday.

“We’re hoping that we’re not going to see a significant rebound,” Harmon said. “It will take us probably another seven days to really see how things are going to play out as a result of Thanksgiving.”

Hospital capacity remains strong in Eagle County: Vail Health Hospital as of Friday morning does not have a single patient in the hospital due to COVID-19, according to Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health.

Hospital capacity statewide is a very different picture, with 95% of ICU beds occupied as of Thursday evening, which Harmon said has a direct impact on the valley.

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“If we need access to a higher level of care because of an auto accident or because of a stroke, being able to find a hospital that can receive you as a patient gets harder and harder when the ICU capacity is as full as it is,” Harmon explained.

Vail Health Hospital is currently taking in patients from other communities on the Front Range and the Western Slope who do not have the capacity to care for them, Lindley said.

Eagle County reported an incidence rate of just over 200 cases per 100,000 people as of Friday, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard. Among fully vaccinated residents, this number was just over 126 cases.

The county’s seven-day average test positivity rate, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that returned positive results, was reported at 8.7% as of Friday. This metric puts the county in the “orange zone” used to denote an increased rate of infection.

Overall, Eagle County had reported a total of 9,101 COVID-19 cases, 197 hospitalizations and 32 deaths as of Friday afternoon. The county reported a total of 88,193 tests conducted since the pandemic began.

The omicron variant

The new omicron variant is at the forefront of the minds of public health leaders locally and across the country as the first case was identified in Colorado on Thursday.

“It’s important for us to operate with informed but conservative assumptions until we know more,” Lindley said.

The case was identified on the Front Range in someone who had recently traveled to South Africa, where the variant was first identified. The variant was already spreading in multiple European countries, Nigeria, New York City and, likely, much of the world, before it was discovered by scientists in South Africa, rendering travel bans useless at this stage, Lindley said.

“It’s probably already in our valley as well, it just hasn’t taken hold at a level to where we’re going to identify it rapidly,” he said.

Initial data shows that omicron’s “doubling time” is shorter than previous variants and this data was collected in South Africa where 50% of the population is vaccinated or has been previously infected with COVID-19, Lindley said. This means that it spreads more rapidly and that immunity through previous infection does not protect well against the new variant.

According to data from the World Health Organization, five times more people with “infection-induced immunity” were reinfected with the omicron variant as compared to the number of vaccinated people who experienced “breakthrough infections.”

Thus far, data is showing that vaccines are still effective against the omicron variant, especially when it comes to preventing more serious symptoms, hospitalization and death, Lindley said.

Heading into the holidays and the winter ski season, statistics like these mean it is more important now than ever before to get vaccinated and get a booster shot, Lindley and Harmon said. This is especially true if you plan on traveling or gathering with extended or potentially immunocompromised family in the coming weeks, they said.

Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna are already working on a new vaccine product targeted to better protect against the omicron variant, Lindley said. If approved, this would be administered through another booster shot, he said.

“I don’t think it’s premature at all,” Lindley said. “If we do find out in the coming weeks that our current vaccines are not providing the protection that we want against omicron, and omicron does become the dominant strain, we’re going to wish they started weeks ago.”

There are many questions around omicron that do not yet have concrete answers, but the public health community will likely know more about the new variant as soon as next week, Lindley said.

One thing public health specialists do know, though, is that the emergence of new variants is not going to stop anytime soon, and each one makes standard precautions like distancing, hand washing and mask wearing essential to managing surges in infections, he said.

“COVID-19 is never going away; it’s going to continue to mutate and change … I think it’s really important for people psychologically, mentally, to understand that and hopefully that will prevent the fear and anxiety that many of them have right now as they’re learning about omicron,” said Lindley, who also serves as the executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

Eagle County is fortunate to have an exceptionally high vaccination rate, which will help immensely in avoiding surges going into the winter holiday season, Harmon said.

The percentage of county residents that have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine is nearing 90%, Lindley said.

In a better place than last year

“We’re in a much better place than we were last year at this time,” Lindley said. “Our incidence rate is lower, our tools to combat and treat COVID-19 are better.”

Vail Health is also now able to offer monoclonal antibody infusions to high-risk COVID-19 patients, a treatment that Lindley said has reduced hospitalizations immensely. The hospital has done more than 115 infusions to date.

This treatment is most effective when a COVID-19 infection is identified early on, meaning it is crucial that people get tested if they suspect they may have been infected or are experiencing symptoms, Lindley said.

Patients must be elderly or have a preexisting condition that makes them high risk to be eligible for the monoclonal antibody infusions and must have a referral from a physician, he said.

The companies that produce monoclonal antibody infusions are already working to reformulate treatments to specifically target the omicron variant, Lindley said.

Anti-viral medications used to treat COVID-19 will soon be available in Eagle County.

Access to new mobility data from the state has also left Harmon and his team in a better spot than the 2020 holiday season because they can monitor where out-of-state travelers are coming from through data from mobile phones, he said.

The state has been analyzing and repacking this data for 15 resort counties, many on the Western Slope, that are among the most impacted by travel during the ski season, Harmon explained.

Thus far, travel rates are similar to those reported this time last year. and Eagle County has been seeing the most visitors from Texas, Florida and California. Knowing this allows Harmon and his team to look at the vaccination rates of those states to see if visitors will have a negative or positive impact on the county’s vaccination rate.

“We’re doing everything that we can to protect ourselves but, let’s face it, we are also a community that thrives on travelers and visitors from other states and other countries,” Harmon said.

Having access to this data will help Eagle County Public Health communicate more efficiently with the public around what might be coming and how we can prepare for it as a community. It also helps them plan around hospital capacity, Harmon said.

“It just allows us to be able to think a little bit differently about how we can start forecasting what we can expect versus always being reactive to what we’ve seen,” he said.

Looking forward to the rest of the holiday season, Harmon encouraged Eagle County residents to make their family gatherings as safe as possible and to not be afraid to talk to family members about their vaccination status in making those plans.

“We want to normalize it because what we don’t want is to have public health orders in place for the next 20 months,” Harmon said. “We can have conversations without passing judgment.”

While we are all tired from going on two years of living with this pandemic, it is still important to take care of ourselves, our family and our community, Lindley said. Perhaps the most crucial piece of this is maintaining and improving our physical health as much as possible to be better suited to stave off a COVID-19 infection.

“We, as individuals, cannot change this virus … but we can change ourselves,” he said.

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