Vaccine push, variants dominated the COVID conversation in 2021
Pandemic optimism ended with the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant and uncertainty as the first full calendar year of COVID-19 comes to a close.
The year began in a decline of case counts in Garfield County, bottoming out in the summer before beginning a slow ascent with the spread of the delta variant and leading up to the current spike of the new, highly transmissible omicron version of the virus.
Vaccination rates climbed. Restrictions and protocols changed.
As of Dec. 28, more than 5,500 Garfield County residents had contracted COVID-19 over the past 365 days, and 52 died from complications.
December spike in the rearview, vaccines begin rolling out … slowly
Following a December 2020 that saw more than 100 new COVID-19 positives in a single day and a 14-day average that has not been even approached since, the year began with the residuals of the pandemic’s highest spike and the promise of vaccination rollouts.
However, access to vaccines quickly put up a roadblock for many. In mid-January, it was not an issue of how many vaccines Garfield County’s health care network could administer, but how it would get enough to meet that capacity.
On Jan. 18, Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said that, at that point, her organization had received roughly half of the doses of the vaccination it had requested.
Eligible recipients were put on wait lists as only 200 to 600 doses were made available locally in a given week — “nothing to be able to start any sort of mass vaccination program,” Long said at the time.
Grand River and Valley View hospitals had administered just over 4,000 doses of the vaccine at the time.
Schools, sports back in action
After the cancellation of fall sports, all hands were on deck in the “B” and “C” spring seasons. Winter sports kicked off in mid-January and fall sports began in March, igniting a frenzy of preps action.
Meanwhile, just before the start of competitions, local schools continued to feel the effects of the virus. Roaring Fork High School saw in-person classes canceled just weeks into the semester out of precaution. Eleven days later, Carbondale Middle School quarantined its entire fifth grade.
In early February, the Roaring Fork School District reached a 90% vaccination rate within its staff.
Vaccine availability spreads
In late March, Gov. Jared Polis announced that all Colorado residents over the age of 16 were eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. At that point, the state had administered vaccinations to more than 1.5 million individuals. High-risk individuals were still prioritized, and Polis estimated mid-to-late May for all Coloradans who wanted the vaccine to have received it. Mask mandates were still in place, but optimism was rising for a “normal summer,” as Polis put it.
On the same day, Garfield County jumped back to yellow (concern) level on the COVID-19 dial with blue-level (caution) business restrictions as case numbers rose locally. A total of 82 new cases contributed to an incidence rate of 146.3 per 100,000 people.
As cases rose and vaccines became more accessible, incentives for getting inoculated began appearing. RFTA offered $500 bonuses to its 385 employees for getting vaccinated in mid-April.
By mid-April, Garfield County residents were “encouraged” — but not mandated — to continue wearing masks indoors and follow health-safety practices. Masks were still required in some settings like large indoor gatherings and nursing homes, but a vaccination rate above 40% created tempered optimism locally.
“The great news is that we have already protected a sizeable portion of our most vulnerable population,” said Drs. Kevin Coleman and Matt Percy, chief medical officers respectively for Grand River Health and Mountain Family Health Centers, in a letter to the Garfield County commissioners. “However, we still have not vaccinated enough of the general public to prevent rapid spread of COVID-19 if other public health measures are removed.”
The rolling 14-day average of cases on April 19 was 9.89 in Garfield County, with 12 new cases that day.
Emergency declaration ends
On May 17, as new cases dropped into the single digits per day, Garfield County rescinded its pandemic emergency declaration.
“This allows us to move into a period of normalcy here in Garfield County,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.
Just two days before, the county reported a lone new positive case for the second time in a week. More than half of the eligible population — ages 12 and up — had received at least one shot of the vaccine.
Businesses were permitted to operate at 100% occupancy without health-safety measures in place, if the staff was fully vaccinated.
Some businesses and entities continued to implement mask mandates and social distancing, but the outlook on the pandemic was maybe the brightest it had ever been.
The optimism began to dwindle as one of the first significant variants of the virus made its way to Colorado.
Just as the emergency declaration ended, delta began being detected in Garfield County. By June 10, six cases of the variant were detected in the county.
On June 21, the county returned to yellow-level restrictions.
Positive case rates began to climb once again, breaking back into the double digits in the 14-day average on July 12.
To get the shot or not get the shot?
As the school year approached, cases plateaued in August. The two-week average sat around nine new positives a day. Attention diverted more toward the flooding closings in Glenwood Canyon. But as the month came to an end, the state’s Board of Health approved an emergency requirement that all staff of licensed health care facilities be vaccinated.
Valley View, Grand River and Aspen Valley eventually saw members of their workforce deemed ineligible to provide care. Protests erupted and exemptions were requested — and granted, in some limited cases.
By the Sept. 30 deadline, 97% of Valley View’s staff were in compliance. A final rally was the holdouts’ last stand.
When the school year arrived, Roaring Fork School District and Garfield Re-2 went different ways with their protocols. The former started the year with masks, the latter held out on a mandate. However, Re-2 implemented one a month into the school year, which was met with protests. The district recorded 26 positive cases between the start of school and mask implementation, according to its internal data.
Two schools saw outbreaks locally, as Cornerstone Christian in Basalt was placed under a Pitkin County health order following the death of a staff member, and Carbondale charter school Ross Montessori saw the largest outbreak in Garfield County, both in November.
The latest, highly transmissible variant was first detected in Garfield County in mid-December. It was the first known case of omicron on the Western Slope.
Since the end of September, cases had climbed back into the range of 20 new cases daily for the first time since January. As the holidays approached, events were put in jeopardy and canceled. As the new year arrives, Garfield County case numbers are averaging in the 30s per day across a two-week span, and much of the optimism expressed over the early days of summer feel distant. The county is once again at an orange level of concern as the two-year anniversary of the pandemic in Garfield County approaches in March.
Reporter Rich Allen can be reached at 970-384-9131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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