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Eagle County riding latest wave of COVID-19 cases

Eagle County, along with much of the Western Slope, is experiencing a spike in positive COVID-19 cases this summer that outpaces most of the state. Fortunately, the spike has not led to any change in hospitalized cases, which have remained at or near zero for the past few months.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Eagle County has registered a 22% positivity rate over the past week, nearly twice the statewide 7-day positivity rate of 11.94%. Eagle County’s two-week positivity rate is even higher, at 26.6%, a trend matched by nearby Summit County (27.9%) and Pitkin County (20%).

Mountain towns in the Western Slope are outpacing most of the state in the percentage of positive tests.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment/Courtesy photo

While these percentages technically qualify Eagle County as “severe risk” by state metrics, Rebecca Larson, epidemiologist for Eagle County Public Health and Environment, said that the positivity statistics alone are no longer a reliable metric because they do not take into account home test kit results. It is only when someone takes a test at an official test site or doctor’s office that their results are counted toward the positivity percentage, which excludes a large proportion of the testing population and skews results.

“From my perspective, it’s not a great comparison now from time period to time period because of the shift in how we’re using tests, who is getting tested, and the increase in at-home tests,” Larson said. “Folks tend to only seek those types of tests if they also need medical care because it does involve an office visit. So you’re starting to see a shift where they tend to have symptoms, they might want to check in with their health care provider and are also getting tested there, versus before when we had all of those testing sites.”

Though the spike in percentage rate is skewed by new testing mechanisms, the upward trend in COVID-19 cases is being reflected elsewhere: in our wastewater. Measuring the presence of the COVID-19 virus in wastewater has proven to be an effective method for monitoring infection rates, and the wastewater data shows a substantial rise in detected SARS-COV-2 copies starting in June.

While samples have hovered around 100,000 since the state began collecting data in March, over the course of June and early July that number has shot up to an average of around 600,000 in data collected from the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District in Edwards, Avon and Vail. Vail has shown the greatest incline, jumping from 75,000 to nearly 800,000 samples in the past month.

Wastewater from Vail is registering the steepest incline in COVID-19 samples since June.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment/Courtesy photo

“With all those indicators: the wastewater percent positivity, looking at that seven-day case count, even though that’s not a perfect indicator, and also just knowing people — I think we all know people that have been exposed, have recently been infected — putting all of that information together lets us know that we have quite a bit of COVID, and it’s very similar to what we’re seeing around the state and nationally as well,” Larson said.

Larson credits the spike to increased tourism, particularly around July 4, as well as the presence of a new omicron variant, BA.5, that is highly contagious. Omicron variants now account for nearly 100% of infections in the state, according to the state’s COVID-19 Variant Sentinel Surveillance. While the variant spreads rapidly, it does not appear to cause severe health issues as hospitalizations due to COVID-19 remain unchanged.

The latest guidelines instruct those who have tested positive to quarantine immediately for at least five days from the start of symptoms, regardless of your vaccination status. If no symptoms develop with a positive test, the person should isolate for five days from the test date.

Nearly 100% of all new cases are omicron variants. The latest omicron variant, BA.5, is highly infectious.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment/Courtesy photo

“We continue to encourage everyone to stay up to date with their COVID vaccinations, and obviously follow the guidelines if they’re infected,” Larson said. “If you have COVID-like symptoms or you’re exposed, we have a lot of home tests available to us, so those are great resources for people to use.”

Eagle County closed down its COVID-19 dashboard on June 1, and those seeking more information on infection guidelines and COVID-19 statistics are now directed to the state website, COVID19.colorado.gov. To find testing sites and pick-up locations for at-home tests, visit EagleCounty.us/publichealth.

COVID-19 testing, vaccines resources evolve as county trends toward an endemic phase

As the COVID-19 pandemic moves toward a more endemic phase, resources and services relating to the virus as well as vaccines and tests continue to shift in Eagle County.

According to Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s director of public health, throughout the months of May and June, the county experienced “higher levels of transmission,” mirroring the rest of the state. However, over the past two weeks, the number of new cases as well as positivity rates have started to level out and even slightly drop.

“Fortunately, throughout the period of increased transmission in our communities, hospitalizations have remained low,” Harmon said. “This helps highlight protections within a highly vaccinated community, as well as some immunity from previous infection.”

Largely the cases being seen across Colorado are still dominated by various strains of omicron. In the spring, the dominant strain was BA.2 and now BA.4 and BA.5 account for approximately 50% of COVID-19 cases nationwide, Harmon said.

“Each of these variants have demonstrated higher transmissibility compared to the original omicron strain of December and January, which is why vaccines later this year will likely cover omicron in this newer formulation,” he added. “The good news is we have not seen evidence of increased severity during this recent period of higher transmission.”

A spokesperson for Vail Health noted that COVID-19 is still present in the community. On Wednesday, the spokesman said the hospital is experiencing one to three patients a week being admitted, and that patients coming into urgent care and the clinics are generally experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms.

As we move toward the new endemic phase of COVID-19, however, tracking positive cases and transmission has certainly changed from even six months ago as public testing sites closed up shop and at-home testing became more prevalent. 

“With a significant amount of at-home testing available, many of these cases are not reported to state or local public health agencies,” Harmon said, adding that for this reason the practice of comparing disease rates to historic or even geographic data no longer makes sense.

That doesn’t mean that disease tracking is gone, however.

“Surveillance efforts will continue to look at positivity rates, disease rates, and hospitalizations. However, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is using wastewater surveillance throughout Colorado, including Eagle County,” Harmon said. “This surveillance tool helps to identify changing trends in community virus levels earlier than just looking at case rates.”

Changes to testing

In recent months — largely following the December and January surge of omicron — one of the main changes locally has been the availability of free public testing sites.

“As COVID-19 is shifting toward being endemic, the testing resources continue to evolve to reflect changes in transmission and demand for testing. The pandemic phase required more of a crisis response, hence testing locations in parking lots throughout the county and availability five or more days each week,” Harmon said. “With a disease that is more endemic, state and local public health officials are working to shift more testing and vaccination resources back into traditional medical clinics.”

In fact, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently has opted to close test sites in the region due to decreased demand. As such, starting July 1, the state department is consolidating Eagle County test sites to one location under a new provider, Affinity/Eurofin, at the Eagle Town Park.

This location will be open three days a week for six hours a day offering free PCR testing and is acceptable for travel validation. 

At local health care providers — Colorado Mountain Medical and Vail Health — testing is still available. However, around six months ago when testing sites began to close, the providers only started offering tests to those with symptoms. As such, walk-in testing and travel testing are no longer available from these locations.

As Harmon stated earlier, this has led to an increased reliance on at-home testing. Free at-home tests are widely available for pickup throughout the county and online through the federal government. In Eagle County, these pickup locations include the Vail Library, Vail Fire, Eagle County Government offices in Avon, Eagle and El Jebel as well as mail delivery via the U.S. Postal Service.

Plus, Harmon added, “Walgreens continues to provide testing and ‘patient-pay’ testing for travel is available in El Jebel outside of the Eagle County Community Center.”

And even as many things change, once a person tests positive for COVID-19, guidelines remain the same.

“We continue to ask anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to isolate per the CDC guidelines. This remains an important prevention measure to reduce community spread,” Harmon said.

To view the testing options, which are changing on July 1, visit EagleCountyCOVID.org

Vaccines 

The most recent change to COVID-19 vaccines was the June 18 Centers for Disease Control recommendation that all children between 6 months and 5 years old receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration authorized both Pfizer (a 3-dose series) and Moderna (a 2-dose series) for this age range. 

Several locations in the county are offering vaccines to this youngest age group including the Eagle County Public Health and Environment office locations in Eagle and Avon; the state mobile vaccination bus; and local pharmacies and healthcare providers.

According to a Vail Health spokesperson, the health care provider is currently offering Moderna for this age group, with Pfizer expected to be available soon.

As for everyone else: “Being up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccinations is important to both protect you, as well as our community,” Harmon said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment now has a vaccination calculator available to help determine how many doses are recommended for individuals. This depends on pre-existing conditions, vaccine doses received and more. This tool is available at: Covid19.Colorado.gov/vaccine-calculator.

For information on where to get vaccines in Eagle County, visit EagleCountyCOVID.org.

Even as Eagle County pushes toward an endemic phase with COVID-19, Harmon added a reminder that testing and vaccine availability and administration is also impacted by other key challenges facing the community.

“While the U.S. health care system is plagued with staffing shortages, Eagle County also has a severe affordable housing need that contributes to the challenges we have in filling positions for physical and behavioral health care providers, as well as nearly all businesses in our mountain communities,” Harmon said. “Many actions are being taken by Eagle County Government and other local partners to increase the affordable housing stock, but it won’t alleviate some of the immediate service challenges within our communities.”

New wave of COVID cases in Eagle County marked by mild illness

 

As Colorado reports a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases, Eagle County rides its own wave — one that local health experts say is marked by mild illness.

The average percentage of the county’s COVID-19 tests that have returned positive results reached 13.9% as of Monday morning, putting us in the red zone of the county’s data monitoring system.

“We should all assume that every six months to a year, we’re going to get COVID, and we should plan for that,” said Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health, in an interview Monday. “Go into that with all your body armor, being as healthy as you can.”

That being said, Lindley added that: “We’re peaking at this current wave, and it’s definitely impacting the community at a lower level.”

At the state level, Colorado experienced a 38% increase in hospitalizations last week. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 jumped to 225 people on Tuesday, May 31 – up from 163 a week prior, as reported by the Denver Post.

Eagle County’s incidence rate — the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents — has risen to 131 cases, according to data collected by Eagle County Public Health. This is more than double the rate reported during the extended lull in new cases the county saw for most of the spring. At the end of March, the county reported just 54 cases per 100,000 people.

While this is a significant uptick in new cases, this latest wave has not been marked by an increase in severe illness or hospitalizations due to COVID-19. The county is still reporting 12 days of stable or declining hospitalization rates.

Recently, two people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 — the only hospitalizations due to COVID-19 the county has reported in the last two months, Lindley said.

As the valley enters another high season for tourism, Lindley said we may see a few more hospitalizations but that, overall, he is not worried about the impact visitors may have on community spread.

“I’m not worried that we’re heading into summer with higher numbers, say, than what we had entering into last summer,” Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon said Monday. “We have higher vaccination rates and, for better or for worse, the omicron wave that we had in December and January exposed a lot of individuals … which will offer some level of immunity.”

The local test positivity rate being temporarily in Eagle County Public Health’s “red zone” does not mean the department is planning on implementing any new public health orders at this time, Harmon said.

Some of this steep increase in the county’s positivity rate could be due to the fact that more people are opting to take readily available at-home tests rather than going to the county’s testing sites where such data is collected, making the surveyed group smaller, Harmon said.

Lindley also acknowledged this change in how people are testing themselves for COVID-19, noting that it has become increasingly helpful to gauge community spread based on the rate of infection among Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical employees as they are always tested in-house if exposed.

As of Monday, the health system reported that 30 employees are out sick with COVID-19, up from about 20 last week, Lindley said.

At the peak of the county’s biggest wave of COVID-19 infections back in December, the health system had as many as 80 employees out sick with the virus at one time. This, among other things, put a significant strain on resources, Lindley said then.

Sub-variants of the omicron variant of COVID-19 have continued to make their way into the valley but have caused few infections since the December wave. There are a few of these sub-variants that Eagle County public health experts are keeping their eyes on, but the broader public does not have to feel a pressure to commit them all to memory, Lindley said.

“If you’re not hearing from us, that’s good news and we’re not worried nor should the community be worried,” he said.

At this time, it is important for residents to be aware that cases are higher than normal so that they continue getting tested for COVID-19 — at one of the county’s remaining testing sites or using an at-home test — if they have any symptoms or believe they may have been exposed, the two public health experts said.

Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should be sure to quarantine at home for at least the first five days after the start of symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, according to Eagle County Public Health’s exposure guidelines which were updated in December based on new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you are no longer experiencing symptoms after five days, the guidance permits residents to leave the house but asks that they wear face coverings while in public areas for an additional five days.

“Stay at home, limit your exposure,” Lindley said. “Be a good human when you’re sick.”

For those who may be more susceptible to severe illness with a COVID-19 infection, now is the time that they might consider returning to wearing a mask inside until this latest increase in cases subsides, Harmon said.

With summer in full bloom in the Eagle Valley, it is easier than ever to get outside and get active — two things that can be used as powerful tools to prevent a COVID-19 infection, Lindley said.

“Get outside, get some sunlight,” he said. “Vitamin D is fantastic for your health. Exercise is excellent for your health, fresh air — all these things are not only good for your physical health, they’re excellent for your mental health as well.”

Eagle County remains at low level of COVID-19 transmission amid slight increase in cases

Eagle County Public Health has removed its mask mandate, meaning masks are no longer required in schools or government buildings but private businesses can choose whether to require them.
Kelly Getchonis/Vail Daily archive

Just over two years have passed since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Eagle County back in March of 2020 and, thankfully, much has changed since then.

Nearly all county residents are now vaccinated against COVID-19, according to statistics collected by Eagle County Public Health. Vail Health now has consistent access to monoclonal antibodies and antivirals proven to be effective in treating various strains of COVID-19.

“We have much better tools and understanding of the disease going forward to better protect and prepare ourselves than we did two years ago,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health.

This all means that Eagle County residents can feel prepared when they read headlines about new variants of COVID-19, like the new subvariant of the omicron variant known as “BA.2.”

The first omicron variant, known to public health experts as “BA.1,” hit Eagle County hard over the winter holiday season, causing the biggest surge in cases and hospitalizations the valley has seen to date.

In December and January, the valley saw an exponential increase in infections with hundreds of new cases being reported each day, Lindley told the Vail Daily then. This put a strain on public health resources as Vail Health worked to treat those who were hospitalized with omicron, which Lindley said was “by far the most infectious respiratory illness we have ever encountered.”

The good news is that this wave left the Eagle County community with more immunity against COVID-19 — from vaccination and from previous infection — than ever before, Lindley said in an interview Friday.

The bad news is that the BA.2 subvariant of omicron is even more contagious than BA.1, he said. And, as spring break brings visitors into the valley to celebrate the end of the ski season, the new variant is undoubtedly already spreading in Eagle County.

‘BA.2’ – a subvariant of omicron

COVID-19 cases have been increasing in Europe driven by the appearance of the new subvariant and, “historically, trends in Europe are an early indicator for what to expect in the U.S.,” said Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director.

“We have a few factors that bring these new variants to us a bit quicker than most places in the U.S. because we are an international tourist destination,” Lindley said. “Any new variant that pops up anywhere in the world, we should assume will arrive on our doorsteps within weeks. That’s just a planning assumption that we have to prepare for, and that the community should always have in the back of their mind.”

This time around, though, “we know there’ll be some more illness … but we don’t expect to see more hospitalization and deaths due to this variant than what we have been seeing,” Lindley said.

The omicron subvariant BA.2 has been detected in “cases and wastewater samples” throughout Colorado, including in Eagle County, Harmon said in the statement.

Eagle County saw “a slight increase” in new cases and in test positivity rates this week after 10 straight weeks of decreases, he said. However, the county remains at “a low level of disease” with a case incidence rate of 54 cases per 100,000 people.

“Severe illness and hospitalization due to COVID remain very low,” Harmon said.

In a COVID-19 update delivered to Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education Wednesday, Superintendent Philip Qualman said there were zero cases reported among students and staff in the preceding week.

Eagle County Public Health allowed the county’s mask mandate to expire in mid-January after the omicron surge died down. This means masks are no longer required in schools or government buildings, but private businesses can choose whether to require them.

Given the strength of local public health infrastructure and the high rate of vaccination among Eagle County residents, both Lindley and Harmon said that the presence of this new subvariant does not require the reinstatement of mask mandates or COVID-19-related closures.

“As the pandemic evolves, our approach must evolve with it,” Harmon said.

On an individual level, residents can protect themselves by ensuring that they are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations, which are now available to people ages 5 and older.

Vail Health plans to reduce the frequency of COVID-19 vaccine clinics as the mass vaccination model is no longer needed at this time, according to chief population health officer Chris Lindley.
Ali Longwell/Vail Daily File

Previous infection with the first omicron variant (BA.1) “appears to provide strong protection against BA.2 overall,” Harmon said. “Being up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations also continues to provide protection.”

The widespread circulation of BA.2 has led vaccine manufacturers to launch the FDA approval process for a fourth shot of COVID-19 vaccine. Vail Health and other local providers will have the capability to offer these fourth shots once they are approved, which Lindley said is likely to happen in the next month or so.

Lindley also recommended that residents have a few COVID-19 tests on hand so that they can test themselves if they begin to experience symptoms.

While symptoms could very well turn out to be a cold or seasonal allergies, it is best to prepare for the possibility of having contracted the new variant until a negative test proves otherwise. In this way, we can continue to reduce community transmission and protect the county’s immunocompromised population, Lindley said.

Beyond this, “keep investing in your health,” Lindley said. “Stay healthy, continue to eat healthy, get sleep, get exercise. See your primary care doctor.”

“On the mental health side, our community has been through a lot,” he added. “People are burnt out. There’s high levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse in our community. So, everybody be kind and loving and if you notice people that need help, get them help, refer them to a behavioral health provider.”

Vail Health and its subsidiary Colorado Mountain Medical are reducing the frequency of COVID-19 vaccine clinics as the mass vaccination model is no longer needed at this time, Lindley said. Vaccines are still available through Eagle County Public Health, at Colorado Mountain Medical clinics and at all pharmacies in Eagle County.

Moving forward, the idea is that COVID-19 vaccines will be offered by pharmacies and primary care providers in a routine fashion similar to flu vaccines.

COVID-19 is “now readily established in our community and worldwide,” Lindley said. “It will continue to be with us probably for as long as we live.” Public health experts are hopeful that, as COVID-19 continues to circulate and mutate across the globe, the new variants that emerge will become milder with time as was the case with the flu virus.

“That’s the hope, but it’s not known,” Lindley said.

Q&A: Jill Hunsaker Ryan on leading Colorado’s COVID-19 response, fighting disinformation and the road ahead

Jill Hunsaker Ryan worked 60 straight days at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, often logging 15 hours straight in front of her computer while leading the state’s response to the crisis. Her husband would bring her meals at her computer at their home in Edwards as she worked around the clock, jumping from one virtual meeting to the next.

“My staff and I, we would jump on our computers somewhere around 6:30, and we’d be in meetings up until the evening,” said Hunsaker Ryan, the former Eagle County commissioner who was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis in Jan. 2019 as the executive director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Hunsaker Ryan, quick to defer credit, said some of her team members continued to grind without a day off even longer than her in the first few months of the pandemic.

“I mean, we worked weekends for, I don’t know, probably six months,” she said. “They were definitely like 15 hours days for a really long time.”

All that work has led to Colorado being “in a really good place,” Hunsaker Ryan said.

To that point, nearly 80% of Coloradans have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the state is 11th in the country for residents with a third dose. Colorado also has the 10th lowest death rate in the United States and, throughout the pandemic, never exceeded the cumulative death rate of the U.S. average.

At the end of February, Gov. Polis told Coloradans in a press conference, with Hunsaker Ryan at his side, that it’s “time to turn the page and start a new chapter” and that those who are fully vaccinated “can freely live without undue fear.”

In a recent sitdown with the Vail Daily, Hunsaker Ryan reiterated that message, saying Colorado remains in a good spot after the surge driven by the omicron variant. She then reiterated that if a more severe variant emerges that again strains the state’s health care infrastructure, her office is always prepared to ramp systems back up.

Next month, Hunsaker Ryan will be honored by Polis with the 2022 Citizenship Award, which recognizes individuals who inspire excellence and public service. It represents one of the highest honors in the state.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

It’s been more than two years now. What emotions do you have? What’s the feeling you get when you think about it?

A big sigh of relief and just such a sense of pride in the state of Colorado team that has responded to this. It includes the state health department. It includes the Department of Public Safety, the governor’s office. We’ve had the same response team from the beginning. People have stayed with us, and Colorado’s just in a really good place right now.

When you were in grad school at the University of Northern Colorado, getting your masters of public health, you obviously trained for scenarios like this. Same when you were the Eagle County public health director. Describe all that training versus the real thing?

So in the late ‘90s, Laurie Garrett came out with this book called “The Coming Plague.” She was a journalist, and everyone in public health read it and talked about the public health system being under-prepared and us being overdue for a pandemic.

And then, post-9/11 and the anthrax event that happened a month later, the public health system nationally was brought into this federal emergency management system. We were given a lot of funding to do training and pandemic planning. That’s when I was at Eagle County. And the most likely scenario, I think everyone thought, was a pandemic flu. And, of course, that came to fruition in 2009. And so we had thought a lot about pandemics and what they could look like. And we worked on our mass vaccination clinics and did a lot of fit testing around N95 masks.

But this virus is so complex, it is so novel, and it behaves so much differently than a flu. For one thing, it’s more severe. It’s more contagious. And the asymptomatic nature of it, which wasn’t known really for the first couple of months in general, like around the world, it just made it very challenging to contain the magnitude of it. The Colorado School of Public Health has some really great charts that just shows on our highest day of testing in Colorado, processing 87,000 tests, there were likely three to four times the number of people infected.

In fact, they said in early January, between one in 10 and one in 15 Coloradans were infected at that point. So vaccines offer a pathway back to a more normal way of life. And at the beginning of this, you asked me how I was feeling and I said relief because I think at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t know if there would be a vaccine for this. We didn’t know how long it would take to develop. And vaccines have really replaced the need for the social distancing orders and the kids having to do online learning and really the economic devastation to families and communities and businesses. So I’m very hopeful at this point. I’m very, very hopeful.

Colorado has entered a new phase in its response. All of this infrastructure we built up in these two years, now we’re sort of winding some of that down. Is this the right time to do that? Especially with what’s going on with the BA.2 variant?

So the level of disease transmission and the number of hospitalizations are as low as they have been since the summer of 2020. And part of that is because omicron was so contagious. It kind of left this natural layer of immunity, particularly for people that weren’t vaccinated. And we know immunity wanes, and we know natural immunity wanes faster. So how long will it provide this layer of protection? We’re not sure. But certainly, as we head toward warmer weather, people go outside, and then when kids get out of school, it’s why we tend to see low transmission levels in the summer.

Colorado has really built up its surveillance systems. We do wastewater treatment surveillance. We do genome sequencing in our lab. So we can tell when new variants have entered the state. We can tell when transmission is starting to increase even before the laboratory testing is showing it. You mentioned a new variant, BA.2, and it looks like that while it’s transmissible as the original omicron, it still has about the same severity, it’s more mild. And so while some people will get really sick from it. The vast majority won’t need to be hospitalized from it.

So we think that this is the time to try and head toward what we call endemicity, which is pushing a lot of these functions that have been provided at the highest levels by the state in terms of testing and vaccination. We had mobile buses that did those two things, plus administered therapeutics. Our lab was processing tests around the clock. We want to push those back into the health care system, so people can go to their medical homes for this type of treatment.

But certainly we recognize, if there’s a winter wave next year, if there is a more severe variant that out-competes omicron for contagiousness, we might need to ramp these systems back up, certainly. But this transition needs to happen, so we’re not in this emergency response. It’s a very costly emergency response. It’s mostly federally funded right now. And all indicators are that this is the right time to do some of that.

It has been said that epidemiology is a science of possibilities and persuasion, not of certainties and hard proof. And that being approximately right most of the time is better than being precisely right occasionally. I’m sure you have hindsight looking back on these two years and thinking we could have done some things differently. But in comparison to other states, we’ve done very well. Why is that?

We’ve had a very data-driven response. It’s been very methodical, intentional. We looked at daily indicators along with our partners at public safety and the governor’s office. And the combination of metrics, I think really helped us try to stay one step ahead of the virus. To your point, some of the measurements weren’t perfect because, for example, the tests weren’t picking up asymptomatic cases of people that didn’t feel ill enough to seek a test. But the Colorado School of Public Health was using our hospital data to model what true infection probably looked like. And so with all of the indicators that we had at any given time, we had a pretty good picture of what was going on. We used mobility data. We were able to track hospitalizations around the state. We could tell when hospital beds were starting to fill up. And then we were able to transfer patients around the state to sort of rebalance the patient load on our hospital system.

We looked at different populations. We looked at the county level, the regional level. We looked at racial and ethnic indicators for things like hospitalizations, ability to get a test, level of vaccination. And so we are able to tailor our response to certain demographics.

You bring up demographics. The Colorado Sun recently reported that Colorado has one of the lowest vaccination rates among its Latino population. As a state, we’ve got a high vaccination rate, but what are some initiatives going forward to deal with the pockets out there where the numbers are low or lower than you’d hope?

The data that we use is more robust and nuanced than what is reported to the CDC. We’ve actually done some modeling to better understand our true level of vaccinations in the Latino population. And part of that is people may not want to tell you their ethnicity when they get a vaccine. Particularly, if you think about just the climate for people who may be undocumented and in the country, or just kind of Latinos in general, it’s an undercount. So the numbers that we have are actually higher than the CDC’s. But to your point, there’s still a large disparity there. So we actually set up a new health equity branch within our disease control division, and they focus on health disparities.

We have a lot of different strategies around this. We’ve used community members as spokespeople. We’ve have had 2,197 equity pop-up clinics, and that’s where we have a clinic in a church parking lot in partnership with a pastor, for example. We offer our information in English and in Spanish. We have had a very large, very robust information campaign around vaccinations. It’s something I’ve never seen before in all my years in public health. And to form that campaign, we did a bunch of research to understand how, for example, communities of color, who they want to receive their information from. Like, who’s the most trusted messenger, what messages resonate, what methods.

We have contractors that are going out to immigrant communities and coordinating vaccine clinics there. We have a whole group called Vaccine Champions for Health, which are some of these community leaders, and they’ve been great at doing social media and commercials. So we’ve tried to get the word out about vaccines and that they’re safe and effective. And then we’ve tried to bring vaccines to people where they are and make them really convenient and have trusted messengers and present it in people’s native languages,

How stifled has that message been or how challenging has it been to get it out there with the state of media in this country, and in our state? How hard is it to convince people to do something they don’t want to do?

It’s very hard. The disinformation campaign around vaccines has been persistent and convincing. So it’s very hard when we’re up against that. And that is absolutely a real dynamic. And it’s one reason that we’ve done so much research, focus groups and interviews, and tried to understand what people’s fears are around the vaccine so we can try and counter that in our media campaigns.

But the other thing, we have had a disinformation strategy where we’ve been able to monitor some of the disinformation messages, and so then we can help counter those messages and we can see what populations are going to, where are they happening. But it’s been been difficult.

Those disinformation campaigns put you under the spotlight. You’re someone who’s setting these policies or working with the governor’s office to do these things. Have you received any threats from people who obviously see you as the person that’s ruining their lives in some way or another?

Particularly at the beginning of the campaign, I’ve had death threats. Some of my staff have had death threats. Throughout, I think the public health field has kind of been painted as the villain. And it’s really too bad, because this is a field that has just worked so hard. It’s a field of very passionate, mission-driven people who are going to work long hours to try to protect the public.

But I feel like we’ve had a really balanced response because it’s been data-driven. We’ve recognized that when we have social distancing orders in place, for example, that those do have negative consequences. So we’ve really tried to balance disease suppression with the negative consequences you can get from some of the suppression strategies. We’ve always held protecting the hospital system as our North Star. So that’s been our ultimate goal. And it’s really been in that sense that we have had to implement some of these strategies.

Dr. Christy Murphy, a veterinarian at Buffalo Mountain Animal Hospital, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Elsa Aguirre during a drive-thru clinic at the Summit Stage bus depot in Frisco on Friday, March 19, 2021.
Jason Connolly/Jason Connolly Photography

But again, with vaccines, and it’s why we have had mass vaccination clinics around the state, why we’ve had mobile buses going around the state trying to vaccinate people. This really is the strategy to us not having to go back to a place where we have to use restrictions to prevent transmission, to protect the hospital systems.

What is the future of this? You mentioned the word endemicity, which means that we’re going to have to live with this. It’s going to be here. But people want to know what’s ahead. To use a quote from the governor, he said, “We never declared victory over this, but we have reached a point where we can go back to trying to living our lives like we lived before the pandemic.”

That’s absolutely true, especially if you’re vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted. And we want people to get their booster shots because vaccination immunity can wane. People should live their lives and know that their state is prepared for surges or new variants, but I think that this is going to be here to stay. And the goal of endemicity is really that there’s enough immunity that our hospital systems are protected without the state having to do an emergency response. And anybody who needs a hospital bed from an injury, or needs surgery, or the birth of a baby, or COVID-19, can get a hospital bed. And that they’re staffed and that they have the level of care that we have all come to expect. So when there is a certain level of immunity and we’re just able to ride out these waves without the surging some of these functions, that’s how we’ll know we are there. But we’re ready to surge if we need to.

 

 

Nearing pandemic’s two-year mark, public health officials reflect on lessons

Public health officials often plan for disease pandemics. All those plans went out the window in March 2020.

We’re now roughly two years from COVID-19’s first appearance in Colorado. It’s been a long two years.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director Jill Ryan previously served as an Eagle County commissioner and as the county’s public health director.
Courtesy photo

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director Jill Ryan and Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon recently took some time on a Zoom call to talk about the past couple of years and reflect on the progress made and what’s been learned in the past 24 months.

Ryan noted she was the county’s public health manager in the early 2000s. In planning for pandemics and other public health emergencies, Ryan said she and other officials never expected anything like the COVID-19 virus.

The fast-spreading, quickly-mutating virus, which affects people ways ranging from few, if any symptoms to long-term debilitation to rapid death, quickly overwhelmed virtually every public health system, Ryan said.

Unimaginably complicated

“I can’t imagine a virus more complex than COVID,” Ryan said. “It was really scary early on,” she added.

Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon.
Courtesy photo

Harmon, also a longtime public health professional, noted he’s only recently felt like he can take a deep breath after the past couple of years.

“No matter who you are, the past two years created a significant challenge,” Harmon said. “The piece I’m most proud of is the response from the entire community.”

Harmon praised the response from local governments, the Vail Health system and residents in responding to the virus.

That response simply couldn’t happen if residents didn’t show up, Harmon said, noting that the county’s first vaccine clinics were aided by roughly 1,000 community volunteers.

Those early vaccination clinics created a “deep sense of connection to the community,” Harmon said. “It was a moment of joyfulness.”

And, he noted, the Eagle County Commissioners, who also serve as the county’s board of health, took pains to listen to many different viewpoints.

“It’s OK to acknowledge that we’re not going to go through a two-year pandemic all being on the same page,” Harmon said. “But the commissioners were very open to listening to (the public).” That input “helped influence our approach.”

A good choice for testing

Since the state’s resort areas were the first to be hit by the virus, Ryan said Eagle County was a good choice for some of the early pilot programs.

Ryan said Eagle County had the resources, from its public health department to the resources at Vail Health, to be a good test bed.

“We knew we could pilot things here,” Ryan said, adding that Vail is easier to reach from Denver than other mountain communities.

Ryan, a former Eagle County Commissioner, was named the state’s public health director in January of 2019. The past couple of years “have been super stressful,” she noted, adding that she’s among those who caught the omicron variant in late 2021.

While the virus in its first months eluded efforts to contain, or even treat, the bad cases, Ryan said the state’s public health system is in a much better place today.

Ryan noted that medical professionals have more tools, including vaccines and antiviral treatments.

The state also has contracts with testing labs and staffing contracts for hospitals that might need more people during spikes in new cases. Masking and social distancing are also now familiar to the population at large, she added.

Given the number of curve balls the virus threw at us, “I don’t think there’s anything that could surprise us any more,” she said.

While it seems like anything’s possible with the COVID virus, Harmon said this current pause in case spikes gives public health officials a period to regroup.

It’s also a good time to ponder the behavioral health impacts of the pandemic. “It’s a good time to reach out and rekindle our social connections,” he said.

“There are a lot of things to reflect on,” Harmon added. “For me, it’s gratitude for all the members of our community.”

By the numbers

10.2 million: Vaccines given in Colorado

12,536: Deaths in Colorado due to the COVID-19 virus

1,000: Volunteers at COVID-19 vaccination centers in Eagle County

73%: Percentage of Colorado residents 5 and older considered “fully vaccinated”

Sources: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Eagle County Public Health

What does it take to persuade someone to get a COVID vaccine? Patience, understanding and a lot of love.

Chris Battelli and his mother, Paula Battelli, on Feb. 17, 2022 in Westminster.
Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America

Ayear ago, Chris Battelli faced a dilemma with no easy answer.

He was a nursing student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, studying for a career serving others in the health care system. He’d worked throughout the pandemic on the front lines, first as a COVID tester and then as someone administering vaccines. And he believed strongly in those vaccines, never missing an opportunity to explain their safety and effectiveness to others.

This was something new for him. He was raised in a household skeptical of the health care system, the result of bad experiences and expensive medical bills, and it wasn’t until he was an adult that Chris received any immunizations.

So then, as COVID vaccines rolled out to the general public, two passions of Chris’s life collided — his new love for health care and his love for his family.

“From my perspective,” he said recently, “my mom has decades of reasons not to trust health care.”

Thus, the dilemma: How would he ever be able to persuade his mother to get vaccinated against COVID-19? Was there anything he could say that would change her mind?

Read more via the Colorado Sun.

Vail Resorts no longer requires masks indoors

Daniella Silva, gets off of work at the Lionshead Ski School in December. Vail Resorts Kelly Getchonis/Courtesy Photo)

With COVID-19 cases on the decline, Vail Resorts has dropped its indoor mask mandate.

Effective Monday, Vail and Beaver Creek will no longer require guests to wear face coverings in gondolas or indoor spaces, including in restaurants, lodging properties, retail and rental locations and base areas. However, face coverings are still required on buses and shuttles per guidance from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

According to a news release from Vail Resorts, which operates Vail and Beaver Creek, the change is based on the declining rates of COVID-19, and face coverings aren’t mandatory unless required by local public health officials or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Proof of vaccination is still required for guests in cafeteria-style dining establishments. Employees don’t have to wear masks in employee-only areas but will be required to wear them in common spaces and other guest-facing areas.

John Plack, a Vail Resorts spokesperson, wrote in an email that Vail Resorts employees will still be required to wear face coverings in indoor guest-facing areas and common spaces at this time, but will no longer be required to wear face coverings in employee-only areas.

“Vail Resorts’ commitment to safety continues to be at the center of everything we do, and all policies are subject to change based on the evolving nature of the pandemic as well as federal, state, and local public health guidelines,” Plack wrote. “We thank all of our guests and employees for their continued understanding and cooperation as we work together to provide a safe and enjoyable mountain experience for all.”

CMC to end mask requirement Feb. 28

Colorado Mountain College students, faculty and staff will no longer have to wear masks on campus starting Feb. 28, according to a news release.

College leadership decided to end the requirement after looking at immunity rates among faculty and staff, declining COVID-19 transmission and positivity rates, improving capacities at health care centers and public health plans within the communities the college system serves.

CMC has campuses across the High Country, including its Vail Valley campus in Edwards. The college plans to release more detailed information about COVID-19 protocols by Feb. 21.

Town of Vail rescinds mask mandate in public buildings

Face coverings will be recommended but will no longer be mandatory inside town of Vail public buildings. The move became effective Tuesday.

In a news release, the town said the change in policy, directed by the town manager, is due to the continued decline of positive COVID-19 cases and increase in vaccine rates in the county over the past several weeks, the decreased utilization of the county’s health care system related to COVID-19, and the suspension of all county mandates related to COVID-19.

The county set a threshold of less than 500 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population to drop the face covering mandate in county facilities. The current rate in the county is below 400 per 100,000.

The town’s mandatory face covering requirement for access to public buildings had been in place since Aug. 23, 2021. The requirement had applied to the Municipal Complex, Vail Public Library, Welcome Centers, Fire stations, transit centers and the Public Works shops.

Moving forward, the Town of Vail will continue to follow the lead and protocols set forth by Eagle County.

Face coverings continue to be required on all public transportation until March 18 due to a federal mandate.

For additional information on COVID-19 related announcements and activities, visit EagleCountyCovid.org.