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Mental Health & Health

Delta Variant And Summer Travel Likely Behind ‘A Pandemic Of The Unvaccinated’ In Roaring Fork Valley

Courtesy of Aspen Valley Hospital.jpg
Courtesy of Aspen Valley Hospital
A vaccine is administered at Aspen Valley Hospital earlier this year. Some local vaccine providers are seeing an increase in demand for first doses as people take the Delta variant more seriously.

UPDATE: Friday, August 13  

On Thursday afternoon, the Pitkin County Board of Health unanimously supported a requirement for masking in schools at its monthly meeting. The measure now goes to the school board, which is expected to approve it next week.

Under the new rules, students, staff and visitors at schools and childcare facilities would need to wear masks inside, regardless of their vaccination status. County health officials and school leaders at the Board of Health meeting noted the importance of keeping in-person learning uninterrupted.

“Some of the biggest interruptions to school were the quarantines and so our primary goal in starting this year was keeping kids and staff in school as much as possible,” said Jordana Sabella, the county’s public health director.

Sabella also emphasized that vaccination is the most effective strategy against the virus, but that many children are too young for the shot. Pitkin County is seeing high levels of community spread, particularly with the highly contagious Delta variant now comprising 100% of cases sequenced within the state. The new variant has also been responsible for more aggressive symptoms and hospitalizations among children in other parts of the country.

“We are going to see more sick kids, and we hope that we don’t see more hospitalized kids, but this is a much different virus than we were sitting here talking about last August,” said Pitkin County Board of Health vice chair, Dr. Christa Gieszl.

The Board of Health plans to monitor vaccinations and case rates, and will reconsider the mask mandate on October 1. The Roaring Fork School District approved a mask requirement for students and staff in late July.

ORIGINAL: Wednesday, August 11

With more people traveling this summer and the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, Aspen and the Valley are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Local health officials say they aren’t seeing a huge spike like they saw with past waves of the virus, but there is an increase in cases and they are concerned.

Vaccines Are Working In The Valley 

In Garfield County, where about 58% of residents are fully vaccinated, contact tracers are seeing about nine new cases per day. The county had a high of 12 new cases per day toward the end of July. In July, seven people died from COVID-19, and all were unvaccinated.

“We are definitely seeing what has been termed nationally as ‘a pandemic of the unvaccinated,’” said Mason Hohstadt, Garfield County public health specialist.

Since July 1, 94% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have been unvaccinated. “And sometimes more than 80% of our cases are unvaccinated individuals,” Hohstadt said.

As of Wednesday, the county’s 7-day incidence rate, which measures how much the virus is circulating among residents in a community, is about 109.

“Our incidence rates for vaccinated versus unvaccinated is about triple,” Hohstadt said. That stark discrepancy is why public health officials like Hohstadt are still reminding people that the best way to protect themselves and others from the virus is to get a vaccine.

While there have been about the same number of cases in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs as there were in Parachute and Rifle over the past 30 days, Hohstadt said they’re seeing less severe cases on the Eastern, Roaring Fork Valley side of the county where more people have gotten vaccinated.

“All of our hospitalizations right now are people from the west side of the county,” he said. “And so the vaccine is doing what it's supposed to do, which is to reduce disease severity, keep people from the hospital and ultimately keep them alive.”

Delta Variant Boosts Vaccinations

Garfield County public health specialist Carrie Godes said people do seem to be taking the Delta variant more seriously. “People who were ill in the fall are realizing this is now a completely different virus,” Godes said.

In the last two weeks, about 60% of the vaccines administered by county providers were first doses. “It’s been a really long time since I've noticed something like that,” Hohstadt said.

According to Godes and Hohstadt, some residents who are now getting vaccinated decided to do so because they actually got the virus a second time this summer and were surprised by how badly it hit them.

“They had some immunity from their previous COVID illness, but their body wasn't prepared for the Delta variant and they got quite sick again,” Godes said.

Summer Tourism, Delta Variant Likely Drive Cases

In Pitkin County, where a higher percentage — 62% — of residents have been fully vaccinated, there has not been a spike in deaths or hospitalizations, but the county is seeing a rise in cases.

“We do have one of the highest vaccination rates, not just in the state, but in the country,” said Josh Vance, the county’s COVID-19 epidemiologist. “We know that vaccines are still very effective at reducing severity of illness and at preventing serious outcomes in most individuals.”

As of Wednesday, the county’s 7-day incidence rate is 141 and these rates have risen significantly in the past couple of months. “We haven't seen incidence rates that high since about April and that's when cases were really on the decline,” Vance said. “So this is definitely a concerning number.”

While health officials are taking the virus spread in the county seriously, Vance emphasized that it’s nowhere near where it was back during the winter peak in January before vaccines were widely available.

Vance attributes the recent uptick in cases to several factors. First, the county has a high rate of people getting tested, and the more people that get tested, the more positive cases there are likely to surface. Another factor is the increased spread and transmissibility of the Delta variant, which can be passed along by vaccinated individuals who may not even show symptoms. At the same time, the county has seen a big increase in travel and summer tourism as restrictions eased over the last few months.

“We do have a higher proportion of individuals that are not from Pitkin County who are visiting that are not vaccinated,” Vance said.

According to Vance, the vaccination rates among visitors more closely mirrors the national vaccination rates. As of this week, about 50% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated.

“We of course love having tourists here and people visiting Pitkin County, but we do ask that individuals who are visiting be vaccinated before they arrive,” Vance said. “It protects them, but it also protects our community who has been very responsible in getting vaccinated.”

Pitkin County is following CDC guidance and recommending that everyone, including those who are vaccinated, wear masks in indoor public places. “We are still in the thick of this pandemic and people are still getting sick,” Vance said.

Pitkin County Public Health announced it will be making a recommendation to the county's Board of Health in a public meeting on Thursday that they require masks in all schools and childcare settings. The Roaring Fork School District already announced it will be requiring all students and staff to wear masks indoors to start the school year.

For a list of free COVID-19 vaccine clinics and testing sites in the Roaring Fork Valley, visit the Pitkin County, Eagle County or Garfield County websites.

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