Omicron spread in Garfield County cause for concern, but flag not as red as with delta
COVID-19 statistics are off the charts amid the omicron variant surge, pushing Garfield County to red-alert in terms of the risk of community spread for the first time in about a year as case numbers have spiked following the holidays.
What it all means at this point in the pandemic, though, is a matter of perspective.
Public health contact tracing has become limited mostly to cases involving the highest-risk individuals, and federal and state guidance around isolating after testing positive or quarantining after being exposed to the virus is evolving to a less-strict standard.
While the rate of community spread in Garfield County and across Colorado and the United States is cause for concern, especially as it relates to those most at risk of serious illness or death, there’s also a decidedly calmer tone regarding the latest spike.
A surge in cases of the current magnitude — topping 250 new cases per day on multiple days over the last week in Garfield County, and over 1,000 cases in the most recent seven-day period for the first time ever since the pandemic began — had it happened this time last year, might have resulted in a return to mandatory business shutdowns, an end to large gatherings and other intensive measures not seen since before the COVID-19 vaccine was rolled out in early 2021.
New Garfield County Public Health Director Joshua Williams and Public Health Specialist Mason Hohstadt referenced a recent medical opinion article from the Journal of the American Medical Association in the public health department’s weekly report to the county commissioners, who sit as the county’s Board of Health.
The article makes the point that COVID-19 is here to stay, and it now becomes a matter of adjusting to the “new normal” of living with and adapting to changes in the virus, and moving beyond the emergency response aspect of the pandemic.
“In delineating a national strategy, humility is essential … recognizing that predictions are necessary but educated guesses, not mathematical certainty,” the authors of the article note. “The incidence of SARS-CoV-2, vaccination rates, hospital capacity, tolerance for risk and willingness to implement different interventions will vary geographically, and national recommendations will need to be adapted locally.”
So far, the rapid spread of the new omicron variant locally looks to be different from a public health perspective compared to the delta variant that dominated for most of last year, Williams said.
“This is a broader conversation that’s occurring at the federal, state and local levels, and throughout the whole team of people that we work with it will continue to be discussed,” he said. “We’re still in this pandemic, but we’re moving through it.”
Illness associated with the more-contagious omicron variant so far appears to be less severe for most, especially for vaccinated individuals or those who’ve had a previous case of COVID-19. But that’s not always the case, especially for older adults and those whose health is already compromised, public health officials also note.
Vaccination still key
Though the number of breakthrough omicron cases among vaccinated individuals is alarming, vaccination is still a key tool to prevent serious infections, Hohstadt said.
Garfield County sits at about 64% of its eligible population being fully vaccinated, with about 43% of those eligible having received the recommended booster dose.
“We do know that (omicron) has proven to evade both natural immunity and vaccine-acquired immunity for individuals (after a certain period of time),” Hohstadt said during a Monday interview along with Williams.
Breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals are up compared to what public health saw during the delta surge.
According to Garfield County’s COVID-19 data web page, for the seven-day period ending Jan. 2, out of 678 new cases reported in the county, nearly as many (320) were among vaccinated individuals as unvaccinated (358). When delta was the dominant variant, the county was seeing about a 70/30 split between cases among the unvaccinated and vaccinated, respectively.
Omicron has lowered the efficacy of the vaccine for individuals who are six months removed from their last dose to about 35%, Hohstadt noted.
A booster dose upped that to nearly 65%, which is good, but still not the 90% or more efficacy when the vaccine first became available to the general public last spring.
“Although most people seem to be having milder symptoms, I don’t want to diminish the fact that not everyone is going to have a minor case with omicron,” Hohstadt said.
Hospitalization of COVID-19 patients is at an all-time high in many parts of the country, especially in urban areas. Locally, however, hospitalizations have remained in check. As of Tuesday, public health was tracking 10 hospitalizations among county residents — four vaccinated and four unvaccinated.
Case counts, in context
As for the massive increase in new cases recently, much of that has to do with an increase in testing, Hohstadt said.
The various testing sites in Garfield County collected 4,359 COVID-19 test samples from Jan. 4-10, which was almost 2.5 times higher than just after Thanksgiving in November and early December, he said.
The most-recent seven-day test positivity rate in the county is 30.7%, also about 2.5 times higher than the county has seen since the start of the pandemic, even at its peak.
“Recent case counts have been considerably high,” Hohstadt said. “We hope that we are following previous patterns, where we have two weeks of high case counts, followed by a decrease.”
The vast majority of positive results from home rapid tests are not being reported to public health, he added, meaning the numbers are actually higher. Testing at home or at one of the many free PCR lab-confirmed testing sites in the area is also still an effective tool to help prevent disease spread, he said.
“Once people know that they have COVID, they can self-isolate and take the appropriate steps to keep others from getting sick,” Hohstadt said.
Because of the rapid spread and the sheer number of new cases, not all of those cases are being contact-traced by public health, Williams said.
Priority is being given to cases involving people over age 70 or under age 18, and anyone who required hospitalization or is immuno-compromised due to an underlying health condition, he said.
“Anyone who would be considered high risk we are following up with,” Williams said.
Cases at corrections facilities and group homes, including nursing homes, also take precedence, he also said.
That includes a current outbreak at the Garfield County Community Corrections Center in Rifle, where eight residents and one staff member have tested positive.
As with an earlier outbreak at the minimum security work-release facility, some residents were released early or are staying at nearby hotels. Others are being monitored inside the facility, he said.
“We have been working closely with them. They have a plan of approach, and we feel like they are managing it well and got on it quickly,” Williams said.
School quarantine concerns
Meanwhile, a small group of St. Stephens School parents spoke before the county commissioners at their regular Monday meeting expressing frustration over ongoing school quarantine protocols involving students who haven’t tested positive but who were in contact with a student who did test positive.
Local attorney Jill Edinger said she was speaking on behalf of herself and other parents from multiple schools who are at their wits end with the constant quarantine and switch to remote learning for blocks of students who’ve been exposed to a COVID-19 case, even if they haven’t tested positive themselves.
What might have made sense in the early days of the pandemic seems senseless now, she said.
“Myself, and so many parents of young children are falling apart at the seams because of policies that are in place that make no sense,” Edinger said. “This is not sustainable. … I need to work, and my children deserve and need to go to school.”
Another parent, Morgan Warth, who said she works as a family therapist, said the mental health toll on families is more severe than the virus itself.
“Harm is being done to children and families,” she said.
County commissioners said decisions about quarantine protocols are up to the local school boards and officials running the local charter and private schools, which follow Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
“We agree with you; things need to be opened back up,” Commission Chairman John Martin said. “But it’s not our call.”
At the same time, commissioners said they will continue to apply pressure at the state level and other levels of government to relax some of the rules.
New CDPHE and CDC guidance around COVID isolation and quarantine was issued just last week, which is expected to be a topic of discussion as Garfield County school boards meet this month. The matter is on the agenda for an update before the Roaring Fork School District board on Wednesday. The Garfield Re-2 board also has a COVID-19 update on its agenda that same night.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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