Weekly cases nearly double as COVID-19 is again surging in Routt County
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The surge in post-holiday COVID-19 cases Routt County health officials foreshadowed has arrived, with the county seeing the steepest increase in weekly cases since the start of the pandemic.
“We are experiencing exponential growth and a steadily increasing test positivity,” said county epidemiologist Nicole Harty. “The most recent week has seen the second-most cases to date for any one-week period. I anticipate next week will be higher, perhaps our highest to date.”
There were 123 new cases in the county last week, nearly double the new cases of the prior week. The increase of 61 new cases from week to week is the sharpest increase yet and has negated much of the progress the county made to lower cases in December.
“We’re still in the pandemic,” said Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith. “People might think, ’oh it is 2021, the pandemic is over.’ It’s not unfortunately; we’re still there.”
Currently under level orange restrictions as ordered by Gov. Jared Polis, Routt County has flirted with actually meeting level orange case counts, dropping as low as 106 cases during a two-week period. But with that metric now at 185 cases, more than double the 89 needed for level orange, health officials warn this increase in cases could last several weeks.
Test positivity in Routt County is now nearing 7%, up from around 5% just two weeks ago.
“When we get these surges, it is a multiweek process,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, the county’s chief medical officer. “We don’t get a one- or two-week spike where it goes way up and then comes back down. No, it is always a wave, and that wave always lasts many weeks.”
The current increase is starting from a higher level of cases than the increase in October, Harty said, so a larger increase is expected. She said new cases cannot simply be attributed to visitors, and there were just 10 cases among nonresidents last week compared to 24 the week prior.
What is leading to more infections?
“Social gatherings among members of multiple households, including out of state family or friends, are driving a substantial portion of the disease transmission in our community right now,” Harty said.
There is also a large portion of cases that are being attributed to community spread, meaning contact tracers were not able to find a clear source of the virus. Some of these cases involve people who went to New Year’s Eve gatherings, which are being deemed a likely source of their exposure.
Exposure from a known social contact is nearly three times higher in the most recent two weeks after the holidays, when compared to the final weeks of December.
Harty encouraged businesses to work with public health in the event of an outbreak among staff. In a recent outbreak case, Harty said this cooperation helped county health officials prevent other staff from getting sick.
While hospital capacity is still not a concern locally, there have been more hospitalizations in the county the past two weeks than at any point during the pandemic. Some of those hospitalizations are of Routt County residents, but people from Jackson County, who often seek treatment at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, and visitors are also included.
“Prior to these two months, it was infrequent that we would be taking care of COVID patients here,” Harrington said. “It has been continuous now. I would say we always have one, two, sometimes three patients in the hospital that we are dealing with.”
This increased level of hospitalization is in spite of all the advances in COVID-19 treatment, Harrington said.
Cases are surging in many of Colorado’s resort communities, most notably Pitkin County, which recently moved to level red and shuttered their restaurants for indoor service. Pitkin County recorded 522 cases in the past two weeks and had a test positivity rate over 10%.
Case incidence reached over 3,000 cases per 100,000 people in Pitkin County earlier in the week, where Routt County is around 750 per 100,000 people.
“It is apples and oranges comparing counties sometimes, but I do think there is a sense of relevance there,” Harrington said.
Commissioner Beth Melton said the county should not compare itself to other counties to justify that it is doing better than another rather it should be a warning of what could be coming.
“It doesn’t take very many weeks of exponential growth to get there, and I think it is a cautionary tale more than it is ‘thank god we’re doing better than them,’” Melton said. “The assumption that there is some upper limit on these numbers is just not correct.”
One of the reported reasons for Pitkin County moving to level red was they had exceeded their capacity to contact trace new cases. The threshold cited by Pitkin health officials was 700 cases per 100,000, and Harty said that was about what Routt County’s threshold is as well.
She said it could even be lower as people who test positive generally have more personal contacts with restrictions being looser than they did when level red restrictions were in effect. Smith added that contact tracers have gotten good at what they do and public health would favor increasing hours for its current team rather than training another person.
Commissioners have resisted talk about moving the county to level red, with Commissioner Tim Corrigan saying Tuesday it was not being considered.
“Economically, it is also just really, really hard to have the conversation about increasing restrictions on businesses again,” Melton said. “There is no obvious answer here.”
Melton said the best option is for individuals to make good choices with the health of the community in mind.
“Hope is not a policy, but I would hope individuals would take this very seriously, because those changes in individual behavior are what avoid restrictions on businesses,” Melton said. “That is not a threat; it is just a fact.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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