Test before turkey: Health officials recommend getting COVID-19 test ahead of holiday travel
A year ago, health officials warned people not to travel for Thanksgiving and avoid gatherings with multiple households, fearing it could become the next superspreader event.
Then, Routt County had the highest level of state restrictions and had seen the most new cases in a week it ever had. A year later, case counts are similar to what they were last year, recently dropping back below the level they were last November, but the recommendations from health officials are different this year.
“Last year, we didn’t have vaccines at all,” said Lauren Bryan, infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Uptake, it’s been spotty, but it’s been really high in our high risk populations.”
While vaccines have returned most people back to everyday life, they haven’t been the COVID-19 Get Out of Jail Free card many had hoped. The vast majority of people hospitalized in Colorado are unvaccinated, but about 19% of them are vaccinated, and breakthrough cases, mild or serious, are more common than initially thought.
Colorado has had one of the higher rates of COVID-19 in the country, but it has seen the number of new cases each day decline since earlier in the month. State health officials are projecting cases statewide to peak in early December.
But Routt County is seeing a declining in cases earlier, with the past seven days recording 64 new cases, compared to the 125 recorded in the seven days before that, according to data from the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Epidemiologist Nicole Harty said it is hard to say whether this decrease will continue but noted that Routt County saw an increase in cases one to two weeks before the rest of Colorado did.
“That could mean our pandemic curve locally is one of two weeks ahead of the state as a whole,” Harty said.
Gathering for Thanksgiving in the high COVID-19 transmission environment throughout Colorado comes with some risk, Harty said, and they expect to see cases as a result.
“I can’t say how many; that depends on individual and group behaviors and risk mitigation,” Harty said.
Health officials asked people to stay home and limit gatherings last year, but this year, they are instead suggesting people take precautions like getting vaccinated, wearing masks in public spaces and taking a COVID-19 test before embarking on a holiday journey, near or far.
Obviously, getting vaccinated now is too late to have any impact for this turkey day, but it would have one fully vaccinated by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays coming up.
“My husband and I are going to get tested before we go even though we’re vaccinated and boosted, because you can’t eat with a mask on,” Bryan said. “We all have family members who are elderly, who are high risk, who work in health care and can certainly not afford to be even mildly sick.”
If planning on taking a test, Bryan suggested taking it as close to when you leave as possible. For a drive down to the Front Range, take it a few hours before you leave. If getting on a plane, take it before leaving the house, because knowing you have COVID-19 upon arrival at your final destination isn’t very helpful, Bryan said.
Rapid tests, available from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as well as most local pharmacies, are not perfect but generally produce only false negatives, not false positives.
“If it’s positive, it’s positive,” Bryan said. “It’s not a crystal ball; it doesn’t tell you you’re not going to be positive tomorrow, so you still have to take those precautions and not get exposed during your travels.”
Harty emphasized that a negative test does not mean someone doesn’t have COVID-19, just that they are likely not infectious in that moment. Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington said unless symptomatic, getting a PCR test would be ideal.
“A one-time screening test, it should be a PCR test,” Harrington said. “Antigen tests, which you can buy at stores, are helpful if you have symptoms to try to confirm that you’ve got COVID.”
Once over the river and through the woods, it may be a good idea to wear a mask when indoors at grandma’s house, especially around people who are at high risk for the virus, even if they are fully vaccinated, Bryan said.
“People who know that they’re probably not mounting an adequate immune response to those vaccines are people who should modify their plans,” Bryan said.
But what precautions are taken all comes down to how people weigh their own risk if they or someone close to them gets COVID-19. Harrington admits masks likely won’t be popular when the china gets pulled out Thursday, but people should understand there is a lot of COVID-19 locally and in Colorado.
“The more people you’re with, the more there is a chance that you could come in contact with somebody with COVID,” Harrington said. “What is the risk to you if you get COVID? If you judge that risk to be high, then you especially should consider precautions.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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