COVID variant found in county

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    Courthouse closes due to COVID cases, school moves to online learning

    By Randi Pierce
    Staff Writer

    Colorado’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 came on March 5, 2020. Archuleta County’s first confirmed case followed later that month. As of March 3 of this year, Archuleta County has had a total of 662 confirmed cases among permanent residents.

    Now, a year into the pandemic, Archuleta County is experiencing additional closures and remote learning, as well as local detection of the California variant and additional suspected variant cases.

    On Tuesday, March 1, San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) reported via a press release that cases with variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been identified in Archuleta and La Plata counties, including the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant, which Brian Devine, the agency’s deputy incident commander for COVID-19 response, noted is known as the West Coast variant or the California variant. 

    To date, SJBPH has confirmed two cases of the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant, one from Archuleta County and one from La Plata County. 

    The B.1.427/B.1.429 variant, also known as L452R or CAL20C, is under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with researchers still working to determine the infectivity of this variant, as other variants have shown to be more easily transmitted.

    The press release explains that multiple medical facilities in southwest Colorado participate in a surveillance program with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that sequences the genome of a portion of positive COVID-19 samples. This determines if the viruses are variants or not. 

    Devine told The SUN that, with the two confirmed cases of the California variant, SJBPH arranged for additional genomic testing.

    He noted that, while viruses mutate all the time, variants are of concern if they have characteristics that make the virus more transmissible, more severe or both.

    He added that, while the California variant has not yet been labeled a “variant of concern,” preliminary evidence shows that it may be more transmissible and it is the dominant strain in California currently.

    With the first confirmed cases of the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant in Archuleta and La Plata counties, SJBPH believes other variants could also be spreading locally, the press release states.

    “The presence of variants in Southwest Colorado is troubling and means virus transmission could happen more easily,” said Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director, in the press release. “Residents need to double down and commit to taking extra precautions to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus.”

     Devine echoed the sentiment of doubling down on precautions, indicating that if the variants are more transmissible, it could mean a lesser amount is needed in an exposure in order to develop an infection.

    “Normal may not be enough now that there’s a more transmissible variant in the region,” he said.

    SJBPH especially encourages residents of Archuleta County and the Bayfield and Ignacio areas to be tested for COVID-19 in response to the discovery of the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant in people living and working in these communities. 

    Testing, the press release notes, is critical if you have symptoms, believe you’ve been exposed, work in a high-contact job, or if you have been gathering with people outside your household. 

    It adds that additional testing allows public health officials to sequence more samples and identify if COVID-19 variants are more widespread.

    The press release further explains, “New information from CDC shows that improving the fit and filtration of masks helps reduce the spread of the virus. Mask fit can be improved by using a mask with a nose wire or by knotting the ear loops and tucking in the sides. Filtration can be improved by using multiple layers. Laboratory experiments have found viral transmission could be reduced by 96 percent if Americans wore snug surgical masks or a cloth-and-surgical-mask combination.”

    Other public health measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 include physical distancing, avoiding social gatherings, prioritizing good ventilation, staying home when you are sick and getting vaccinated when you are eligible, according to SJBPH.

    Devine noted that there’s no evidence that any of the approved vaccines will be less effective or ineffective against variants, but the variants make it more important to be vaccinated when eligible and there is an appointment available.

    Some county offices
    temporarily closed

    Following positive tests on two employees in the Archuleta County Assessor’s Office, Archuleta County announced Tuesday that three offices — for the assessor, treasurer and clerk — would be temporarily closed. 

    Reopening dates had not been determined as of press time Wednesday.

    Assessor Natalie Woodruff suggested that anyone with immediate business with the assessor’s office can email nwoodruff@archuletacounty.org or assessor@archuletacounty.org.

    On Wednesday, Treasurer Elsa White reported to The SUN via email that the office’s personnel were tested Wednesday and will test again Saturday, which will be five days from their exposures.

    White noted that the treasurer’s office website at www.archuletacounty.org and the voicemail recording at the office have been updated, and that people can email treasurer@archuletacounty.org.

    She further indicated that the ballot box in front of the courthouse has been opened for those wishing to drop off payments or documents for any of the offices within the courthouse.

    The county’s website for the clerk’s office indicates that the drop box is open for renewal payments and paperwork.

    High school goes virtual following student cases

    Following several students testing positive COVID-19, Pagosa Springs High School announced it would go virtual this week, though the school is anticipated to return to four days of in-person learning again next week.

    Archuleta School District Superintendent Dr. Kym LeBlanc-Esparza told The SUN Tuesday that, as of Monday afternoon, there had been four student cases and two staff cases since Thursday, Feb. 25.

    The student cases were all at the high school, she noted, while the staff cases were at the elementary school.

    Between the positive cases and quarantining due to exposure, the district currently has 10 teachers impacted, which impacts students in those classrooms.

    “At that point you can’t run the schedule,” she said.

    LeBlanc-Esparza noted that the district was told there are places allowing kids to gather and sing without masks on, with the cases having direct connections to those places.

    “It’s definitely been challenging,” she said, adding later, “We’ve got to continue to follow the health protocols.”

    Following guidelines, she indicated will allow for more opportunities for students after spring break.

    So far this school year, the district has had 66 cases among students and staff, which she noted is a fairly low number compared to the larger community.

    Testing available

    The free COVID-19 testing site at the fairgrounds, located at 344 U.S. 84, continues to be operated in partnership with COVIDCheck Colorado.

    The testing takes place under the all-weather Hughes Pavilion, with the site open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

    You can register for your free test by going to www.covidcheckcolorado.org and selecting “Get My Test.”

    According to a COVIDCheck Colorado flier, “COVIDCheck Colorado uses a highly sensitive and reliable nasal mid-turbinate swab PCR test that is administered by licensed medical professionals. Please arrive wearing a mask.”

    Testing also continues to be available at a number of local health care facilities, including:

    • Archuleta Integrated Healthcare: 264-2104.

    • Pagosa Medical Group (including rapid testing if deemed appropriate by a provider): 372-0456.

    • Pagosa Springs Medical Center: 731-3700. The facility offers testing for symptomatic patients through its clinic and drive-up asymptomatic community testing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the northwest side of the medical center. 

    San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) encourages residents to get tested if they are symptomatic, think they’ve been exposed, or work in a high-contact position.

    COVID-19 symptoms

    The state suggests that people with symptoms should always get tested immediately. Symptoms include:

    • Fever or chills.

    • Cough.

    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

    • Fatigue.

    • Muscle or body aches.

    • Headache.

    • New loss of taste or smell.

    • Sore throat.

    • Congestion or runny nose.

    • Nausea or vomiting.

    • Diarrhea.