Routt County records 20th COVID-19 death as officials warn of fourth wave of virus
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County recorded its 20th COVID-19 related death last week — the first in nearly four months — as cases in Colorado are again on the rise and state officials warn of a fourth wave of the virus.
In pleading with people to not let their guard down and continue to wear masks during a press conference Friday, Gov. Jared Polis said he believes this will be the final wave of the pandemic because of vaccination efforts.
“This is a race against the clock; it is really important — now more than ever — wear a mask around others and avoid social gatherings,” Polis said.
The cases behind the fourth wave warnings are largely being driven by spread of various COVID-19 variants that are being increasingly found in Colorado. Public health officials have often made sports- and war-related metaphors about the effort to vaccinate people before variant strains of the COVID-19 virus are allowed to take hold.
Routt County reported 40 new cases of the virus between March 31 and April 6, the highest in a seven-day period since early March. Last week’s death was the first reported since Jan. 15 in the county.
As a whole, Colorado’s new case totals have been trending in the wrong direction for several weeks, and both cases and hospitalizations have reached levels not seen since February. But this fourth rendition of case increases is different than previous waves because it is primarily affecting people below the age of 50.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, lead epidemiologist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said this is in large part due to higher vaccination rates among older people.
“Cases are continuing to go up, and until we get to a point where we can achieve this plateau or decline in cases like we are seeing with those over the age of 50, we really need to keep using the strategies we’ve been using,” Herlihy said.
About 460 Coloradans were in the hospital because of COVID-19 on Saturday, the highest that number has been since the middle of February. Still, Herlihy said there would be even more hospitalizations if not for vaccinations, which have now reached more than one in every five Coloradans as of Friday.
Like with cases, those being hospitalized in Colorado also tend to be younger than 50 years old. Herlihy said the risk of hospitalization is actually flat for those over 50 years old.
“This is an important reminder that severe infections can and are occurring in younger populations,” Herlihy said, adding that this is why younger people should be vaccinated as well.
B.1.1.7 variant: First detected in the United Kingdom, this variant has been shown to be 50% more transmissible and likely increases the severity of disease. This is now the dominant strain in the United States and makes up 43% to 45% of cases in Colorado. 1,470 cases in Colorado, eight in Routt County.
B.1.427/429 variant: First detected in California, this variant has been shown to be 20% more transmissible. About 18% to 20% of cases in Colorado are one of these two variants. 488 cases in Colorado, six in Routt County.
B.1.351 variant: First detected in South Africa, this variant has been shown to be 50% more transmissible. 24 cases in Colorado, none in Routt County.
P.1 variant: First detected in Brazil, this variant is believed to be more transmissible. 12 cases in Colorado, none in Routt County.
Driving many of these cases are more transmissible variants like the B.1.1.7 strain, first seen in the United Kingdom. This is now the dominant strain of the virus in the United States, the Center’ for Disease Control and Prevention director said last week. That variant is making up the lion’s share of new cases in Colorado as well.
“More than 50% of positive cases that are occurring in the state are now due to variants of COVID-19,” Herlihy said.
Between 43% and 45% of tests screened for variants are coming back as the B.1.1.7 variant, and another 18% to 20% are the B.1.427/429 variant first seen in California, Herlihy said.
In Routt County, there have been eight cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and six cases of the B.1.427/429 variant. At a public health meeting last week, local officials said they are not seeing as high a prevalence of variants locally as in other parts of the state.
Last week, the first two cases of the P.1 variant, first seen in Brazil, were found in Colorado, and that number has quickly increased to 12 cases by the end of the week. Herlihy said they believe there are multiple introductions of this particular variant in Colorado.
“The concerns with (the P.1 variant) are increased transmissibility (and) possible increased severity, decreased effectiveness of some antibody treatments, risk of reinfection,” Herlihy said, adding that whether this variant would be at all resistant to the vaccines is unclear.
If the variant has any effect on vaccine effectiveness, it would be small, Herlihy said, and vaccines remain highly effective against the virus.
Colorado is now receiving about 400,000 to 500,000 doses of the various vaccines each week, and on Friday, Polis launched the state’s “Power the Comeback” campaign to spread information about vaccines and curb hesitancy.
Routt County is also increasing its vaccine messaging, adding a seventh commitment to containment — “Don’t wait. Vaccinate.” — complete with another poster created by local artist Jill Bergman.
Vaccinating 70% of Routt County residents would get the community closer to herd immunity, said county Public Health Director Roberta Smith. In the latest board of health meeting, Smith said current vaccine supplies should allow the county to reach that 70% mark by June 1 if everyone eligible gets their shots.
Currently, everyone 16 years and older is eligible to get the vaccine.
“We don’t need to ride a fourth wave of this virus, we can end it,” Polis said. “We just need to go back to how we were in February and March for another few weeks, and then we’ll have a more or less normal summer after we reach that herd immunity level.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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