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Public health investigating large COVID outbreak caused by person who dismissed symptoms, got on planes

While 20% of local cases are among the vaccinated, county public health says vaccines are providing 95% protection locally

Routt County Public Health is investigating one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks of the pandemic that involves people from at least 10 different states in addition to local residents and employees of a local business.

“This is seemingly due to an individual dismissing their symptoms for an extended period of time and not being tested, so they traveled on multiple airplanes,” said Routt County epidemiologist Nicole Harty, who added that people should not ignore symptoms, such as allergies or a reaction to wildfire smoke.

New cases locally have plateaued at a lower level than where they spiked to a few weeks ago, Harty said, but the outbreak led to one of the higher new case counts for visitors in a single week. There were 30 new cases of the virus in the past week and another 18 cases that can be attributed to visitors.



The outbreak comes as the more transmissible and more severe delta variant is responsible for almost all new cases of COVID-19 in Colorado, and the state is seeing about a 30% week-over-week increase in cases.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said unvaccinated individuals are almost entirely driving the increase in cases. But breakthrough cases, or when a vaccinated person tests positive for the virus, are also on the rise.

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When looking at all cases in the state in 2021, 97% of them involved an unvaccinated individual. But when narrowing that window to cases in July, that percentage falls to 80%, meaning 20% of the state’s cases in July were among vaccinated individuals.

Harty said Routt County’s breakthrough rate is similar, with about 20% of local cases being among the vaccinated. But because of the county’s high vaccination rate, Harty said this is to be expected.

Using this data, Harty said she calculated an estimate for how effective the vaccines are locally and found that they are providing locals with about 95% protection from becoming a positive case in the county.

“That is really great to see and is reinforcing how really incredible these vaccines are,” Harty said.

Routt County’s vaccination rate remains in the top 10 in the state, but that does not take into account visitors, which means the actual rate of vaccination could be lower than the current 63% of all residents who are vaccinated.

Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said it is harder to come up with an estimated efficacy for those who have acquired natural immunity after contracting the virus because the level of protection acquired can vary wildly.

“When you have a COVID-19 infection, (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates 90 days that you have this kind of protection bubble,” Smith said, adding that vaccines provide more protection from the virus than contracting the virus.

On Tuesday, commissioners did not discuss reinstating any local public health orders like a masking requirement. Still, the number of masks worn in the community is increasing from just a few weeks ago.

Patrons at Walmart in Steamboat Springs found themselves being encouraged to wear masks, with store employees handing them out at the door and thanking those who put one on while shopping. Last week, Walmart announced it would require some employees — those working at corporate offices or at multiple stores — to be vaccinated by Oct. 4.

Piknik Theater will require attendees of the play “Romeo & Juliet,” which opens at the end of September at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, to show proof of vaccination to attend, according to Executive Director Stuart Handloff.

Handloff called the move a “no brainer,” adding that theaters on Broadway are requiring proof of vaccination now as well. Some of the actors they hire also have stipulations in their contract that require crew to be vaccinated, and that extends to the audience as well.

“We’ve got two obligations: One is public health and the other is contractual,” Handloff said. “I don’t think we are going to have a problem selling out ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to vaccinated people, and if we do, oh well. I’d rather perform to an audience of 20 that is relatively safe than an audience of 50 where we are all on pins and needles.”

Smith said public health is willing to help vaccinate employees of a business and will even bring vaccines to them in an attempt to make it as easy as possible to get the shots.

Public health nurse Brooke Maxwell said she would be at the Hayden School District’s open house for school enrollment Tuesday to give out vaccinations, and the county is working to get the state’s vaccine bus to come for when other districts have open houses.

Maxwell said it has never been easier to get a vaccine in Routt County, and public health’s strategy is to make it as easy as possible for anyone who wants a vaccine to get the shot.

“I certainly don’t want to shame the unvaccinated, but I will express the fact that I’m frustrated that we’re talking about me, a vaccinated person, having to take steps to protect those folks who have chosen not to be vaccinated,” County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “I don’t know what to do about that, but it is frustrating.”


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