Second COVID variant found in region

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    By Randi Pierce
    Staff Writer

    On March 5, Gov. Jared Polis extended an executive order “ordering individuals in Colorado to wear a medical or non-medical face covering due to the presence of coronavirus-2019 (COVID-19) in Colorado.”

    The move came days before a second variant was confirmed to be circulating in the region.

    On March 1, San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) reported 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. 

    Then, on Wednesday, SJBPH reported via a press release that a case with the B.1.1.7 variant — also known as the United Kingdom variant — has been identified in La Plata County. 

    “SJBPH continues to conduct contact tracing of those identified with, and exposed to, the new variants,” the press release states.

    The United Kingdom variant was first detected in Colorado at the end of December 2020 and is currently the most prevalent variant in Colorado, according to SJBPH.

    “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the B.1.1.7 variant as a variant of concern, as preliminary data suggests the B.1.1.7 variant spreads more easily and can cause increased severity of disease. Currently there is no evidence to suggest decreased vaccine effectiveness against the B.1.1.7 variant,” the press release states.

    The press release further notes the best defense against virus variants is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through public health precautions, include testing and quarantine, physical distancing, getting vaccinated when eligible, and wearing a mask with improved fit and filtration.

    “With more contagious variants circulating in the region, it’s a good idea to ensure you have a properly fitting mask, or double-up on cloth masks,” said SJBPH Executive Director Liane Jollon. “This is especially important in higher-risk situations, such as going to the grocery store or any other place that might be crowded.”

     In a later interview, Jollon indicated the state is going to put more resources into working with the CDC to study the spread of variants.

    She noted Colorado is trying to test 200 to 300 samples per week for variant strains, with 5 to 12 percent of cases coming back as positive for variants.

    Surveillance, she noted, is “definitely indicating” spread of variants.

    Variant cases are investigated by the state, she noted.

    Continued caution
    urged with potential
    uptick in cases

    Jollon indicated the area is also seeing a slow in the decline of cases coming off the area’s winter surge and is potentially seeing the first signs of an uptick.

    “Our winter surge really hit later than the rest of the state’s,” she said, noting that much of state began surging in October, whereas this area followed in November and started coming off the surge around January.

    “We’re now seeing a slowing of that decline and potentially seeing the first evidence of an uptick — the first uptick since we started coming off of this winter surge,” Jollon said.

    Because of that, Jollon noted, SJBPH wants to encourage community members to continue to follow the protocols.

    “We have lots of good news, we’ve seen cases drop … so fast, much faster than anyone expected, from this winter surge,” she said, noting that the leveling off and potential beginning of an uptick are worrisome after how quickly cases took off in the fall. “We would hate to see something like that happen again this spring when we’ve worked so hard as a community to bring cases down.”

    Jollon noted that continuing to follow protocols will also help students remain in classrooms, with little to no transmission occurring in classrooms.

    As of Wednesday, SJBPH reported 691 cumulative cases of confirmed COVID-19 among permanent residents in Archuleta County, with 12 new cases confirmed on March 9.

    Testing available

    “SJBPH especially encourages residents of Archuleta County and La Plata counties to be tested for COVID-19, in response to the discovery of variants in people living and working in these communities,” Wednesday’s press release states.

    SJBPH suggests that testing 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. 

    Additional testing allows public health officials to sequence more samples and identify if COVID-19 variants are more widespread, the agency notes.

    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.