2 more-transmissible COVID-19 variants found in Routt County
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Two of the COVID-19 variants that have been spreading around the state have been found in Routt County.
One case of the B.1.1.7 variant, first seen in the United Kingdom, and four cases of the B.1.427/429 variant, which first popped up in California, have been found in the county, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. According to state officials, the latter of the two variants is believed to make up at least 20% of all cases in the state. Each of these variants has been shown to be more easily transmissible.
“We are not at a drop-the-mic moment,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County chief medical officer. “Our full efforts at COVID prevention need to continue for at least another two months, and some efforts might have to continue throughout this year.”
Harrington said state health officials are emphasizing there is still a lot of uncertainty about where the trend of cases is headed and these two variants are adding to that. Local public health officials said the best ways to protect against the variants are the same measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, which have become commonplace during the pandemic.
“If our transmission control drops too much where the variants become too entrenched in our state, we could actually see case counts climb,” Harrington said. “I remain optimistic that‘s not going to be the case.”
Epidemiologist Nicole Harty said people who are exposed to one of the variants would likely be quarantined for the full 14 days, but the lower number of cases the county is dealing with now will help them do additional outreach on cases, especially ones involving variants.
Vaccines are shown to be effective against the variants, Harty said.
There were 35 new cases in the most recent week, down from 47 the week before. Positivity rate also has dropped to about 3.3% of tests, a sign that the decline seen in the county is real, Harty said.
“That is what makes me hopeful that we can wrap around the variant challenge that we are encountering to make sure that we are able to follow up with folks as quickly as possible,” Harty said, adding that this also allows them to spend more time talking to people to ensure they understand quarantine procedures.
While cases have declined, more of them can be attributed to community spread, meaning case investigations were not able to identify where a person was exposed. Harty said this means there is relatively more disease in the community that is not being mitigated compared to earlier points during the pandemic.
Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton pointed out that many people in the community have plans to travel over spring break, which public health officials say could lead to a spike in cases if people don’t heed proper guidelines.
If traveling to a state without a mask mandate, Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said people should still wear their masks, get tested if feeling ill and practice all the commitments of COVID-19 containment, even if not required.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines still discourage travel. Fritha Morrison, epidemiologist for the county, said if traveling, people should try to make smart decisions to reduce the exposure.
“Getting on a plane is riskier than getting in a car. Going camping is less risky than staying in a hotel room,” Morrison said.
Morrison added that children are not vaccinated and adults who may have gotten their shot still have some risk. Harty said it seems likely the main driver of variant cases in the county is from travel.
About 24% of Routt County residents have now been fully vaccinated, with 35% of them having at least one dose. About two-thirds of residents 60 and older have been fully vaccinated.
Access to the vaccine locally is growing as Steamboat Medical Group, Yampa Valley Medical Associates and Steamboat Specialty Clinic are all receiving vaccine and making appointments, in addition to other local providers. The supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine locally has been limited due to production delays slowing down the supply going to the state, but Steamboat Specialty Clinic does have the one-dose shot as it gets vaccines directly from the federal government.
“Remember that the best vaccine is the one you can get now,” Morrison said.
The next phase of vaccine distribution is set to open up in the middle of April and would make everyone who is not currently eligible able to get the vaccine. State modeling shows that as many as 69% of Coloradans could be vaccinated by May 21, Harrington said, and the supply of vaccine by then should also supersede the demand for it.
To reach heard immunity, Harrington said vaccination rates would need to be at 70% to 80% of all residents, which would require the vast majority of adults to get the vaccine because children younger than 15 make up about 18% of the state’s population, and they are not yet approved to get any of the vaccines.
The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots are approved for 18 and older, and the Pfizer vaccine is approved for 16 and older.
The new version of the COVID-19 dial 3.0 went into affect Wednesday, which allowed many counties in the state to reach the lowest level green on the dial. The original plan also would have loosened the mask mandate, with different requirements at different points on the dial, but state officials have backed off that original plan, instead saying in a news release that Gov. Jared Polis “may choose to make modifications” when the order expires April 3.
Routt County is currently in level yellow on the dial and would need to have about 25 or fewer cases per week to fall below the 100 cases per 100,000 people required to be at level blue.
Routt County Board of Commissioners voted to extend the local public health order until April 30, allowing them to see how regulations change at the state level in mid-April and adjust the order again before it expires if needed.
“Wear a mask, we still need them, they still work, keep wearing them, we’ll get to the end of this,” Melton said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — wear a mask in indoor, public spaces in Routt County.