Recent decline in local COVID-19 cases shows clear downward trend of virus, health officials say |

Recent decline in local COVID-19 cases shows clear downward trend of virus, health officials say

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Chuck Cerasoli gets the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday from Roberta Smith, director of Routt County Public Health. (UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center/courtesy)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In what Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan called the most positive public health meeting in weeks, health officials said the recent decline in cases is a clear sign of a downward trend of the virus locally.

“I would characterize where we’re at right now and what I see in the data as being cautiously optimistic,” said Nicole Harty, Routt County epidemiologist. “The convergence of all those things — lower cases, lower positivity — that all tells us that we believe this is a real downward trend.”

Health officials have been hesitant to label the decline in cases a trend in recent weeks, but now they say they have enough data to be more confident.

There have been 158 new cases of COVID-19 in the county in the most recent two weeks, the lowest number of cases since early November. In the most recent week, there were just 62 new cases, less than half of the two-week total.

There have now been 18 deaths of COVID-19 in Routt County. Dr. Brian Harrington, county chief medical officer, said one of the deaths was of someone who was “quite young.“

“This was an individual well below our typical 60-plus age range for deaths,” Harrington said.

To move to level orange based on the state’s dial framework, the two-week case counts need to drop below 89 new cases. A move to level orange could ease restrictions for more businesses and make the county eligible for the 5-Star variance program.

The county is currently waiting to hear back from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment about their level orange-plus mitigation plan submitted Tuesday. It is unclear how long state officials will take to review the plan.

If approved, gyms and fitness centers would be allowed to expand capacity to 25%, as well as some increased capacity at pools. Orange plus does not have a definition in the state’s dial framework, but it allows a county to operate with some level orange restrictions while keeping other level red restrictions in place.

Test positivity over the most recent two weeks fell below 5% for the first time since early November. Harty said she expects test positivity to fluctuate right around 5%, but the fact that it dropped from over 7% earlier this month to where it is now is a good sign.

Harty said county public health is seeing that exposure from known contact overall has not changed meaningfully over time, but social exposure decreased while exposure at work increased.

“What I take from this is that the community has seemed to heed the public health restrictions and decreased their social interactions,” Harty said. “In recent weeks, interactions between employees are contributing to more disease spread than between social contacts.”

Cases attributed to travel also have declined in November. Harty said community spread also has decreased over the past few weeks.

She said while it seems people are doing well with traveling and personal gatherings, county officials are worried about what the upcoming holidays could mean for the prevalence of the virus locally.

“Increased restrictions associated with moving along the dial framework during November appears to have helped change the trajectory that we’re on,” Harty said. “As we enter this peak winter holiday time, we’re concerned that travel and social gatherings could result in increased incidence in our community.”

A social gathering is a group of people from multiple households gathering together, whether that is within someone’s home, outdoors or a business.

Without some of the gatherings around Thanksgiving, there could have been a larger decrease in cases, Harty said. Harrington said it comes down to the choices that people make.

“At the core of this are individual behaviors, and those are all within each of us to make those choices,” Harrington said. “Even though this curve is really a nice curve to finally be seeing we’re coming down, we’re still not back to where we were some time ago, and it wouldn’t take much to reverse that to go back up.”

Burgeoning the positive mood of the meeting, Roberta Smith, Routt County public health director, reported the county received a shipment of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday.

The first box and packing labels from the vaccine are being sent to the Tread of Pioneers Museum to mark the historic moment.

“It has been going smoothly all day,” Smith said about vaccinations Wednesday. “All smiles today; it is really a great mood giving vaccines.”

Smith said the public health department hoped to immunize about 200 people Wednesday.

Commissioners also discussed a potential revision to the local public health order to add restrictions limiting those staying in short-term housing to one household.

County Attorney Erick Knaus said this change would provide more clarity than the state order but could be more restrictive.

“Given the confusion and lack of clarity in the state’s order, I’m proposing that we do add some clarity in the local order, which apparently would be more restrictive than the state’s position,” Knaus said.

Knaus suggested the county wait to adopt a new order until they hear back from state officials on the county’s mitigation plan, so they can add those provisions to the order. The current public health order expires at the end of the year, so a change would need to happen before then.

Robin Craigen, who owns a short-term rental company and is the chair of the Steamboat Springs Lodging Association, said commissioners discussing such a measure was concerning to him because that restriction would severely impact short-term rental businesses.

“We have made a case that lodging is not an area where we have a problem managing community spread of the virus,” Craigen said. “Any restriction on household, as has been applied in other counties, would be very damaging to the lodging business here.”

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