COVID-19 spread hits record levels

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By Randi Pierce
Staff Writer

Archuleta County, like much of the state and country, is experiencing “unprecedented” COVID transmission.

On Tuesday, San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) announced in a press release it is currently reporting more positive cases and transmission of COVID-19 than at any time during the nearly two-year pandemic, with more than 580 positive test results received in a 72-hour period between La Plata and Archuleta counties.

“Our region is currently experiencing an unprecedented surge due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant and we understand this is causing challenges for community members, employers, and schools across the region,” Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director, said via the press release. “It’s very important right now that you stay home if you are sick and follow isolation and quarantine guidance for positive cases and exposures. If you are positive or exposed and don’t know what to do, please call SJBPH or visit our website for more info. We are fortunate to have vaccines and boosters widely available during this spike in cases which will help prevent hospitalizations and limit the severity of illness if you are to be infected. Please get your booster dose right away.” 

SJBPH, the press release explains, attributes the local surge in cases to the Omicron variant, which it notes is highly transmissible. 

The variant was recently confirmed with a positive sample from Archuleta County that was taken Dec. 26, 2021.

According to the SJBPH, Archuleta County’s seven-day cumulative incidence rate was 1,264 cases per 100,000 people Wednesday — up from 463.8 cases a week prior. 

La Plata County’s rate was 2,090 cases as of Wednesday. Colorado’s rate was 1,493.6 as of Wednesday, and the nation’s was 1,583.5.

As of Wednesday, SJBPH listed 2,297 total cases of confirmed COVID-19 among permanent Archuleta County residents since late March 2020, up from 2,119 a week prior. 

The agency showed Archuleta County was at 29 percent positivity Wednesday, up from 25 percent a week prior.

Archuleta County has had nine deaths among COVID cases.

Variants confirmed in the area are included on SJBPH’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

Cases in the community also led to staffing shortages at two local schools, pushing them into remote learning temporarily: Pagosa Springs Elementary School and Pagosa Peak Open School (PPOS).

PPOS returned to in-person learning Wednesday, while the elementary school is anticipated to return to in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

“Questions remain about Omicron’s severity, and the impact on local COVID-19 hospitalizations will become clearer in the coming days and weeks,” the Tuesday press release states. “To preserve already strained health care capacity and resources, the public is strongly urged to seek vaccination and a booster dose as soon as eligible, mask in businesses and public indoor spaces, isolate when ill, and quarantine when exposed.”

If you’re symptomatic, stay home,” SJBPH Executive Director Liane Jollon stressed Wednesday.

The press release further notes that the Colorado School of Public Health recently estimated that between 1 in 5 and 1 in 10 individuals statewide (and in our area) are currently infectious with COVID-19. 

SJBPH’s public health advisory related to COVID-19 — which includes recommended precautions — can be found at: https://sjbpublichealth.org/advisories-and-orders/.

Prioritization plan for
contact tracing

Due to the high volume of cases, SJBPH contact tracers no longer have capacity to reach every positive case via phone call, the press release states. 

It explains that SJBPH has implemented a prioritization plan that allows contact tracers to call high-priority cases. 

“SJBPH continues to send text messages each day to all reported positive cases with guidance on how to isolate. Text messages are also sent each day to close contacts of positive cases with quarantine guidance, although SJBPH is unable to identify every exposure during the unprecedented surge currently occurring in the community,” the press release explains. “Information about isolation and quarantine is available on the SJBPH website. Community members are also encouraged to call SJBPH with any questions regarding quarantine and isolation (970-247-5702).”

I tested positive at home. What do I do now?

Those who receive a positive result on an at-home test who are not in need of immediate medical care can report their test result, ask questions and receive isolation and quarantine guidance by calling (970) 247-5702 or either of SJBPH’s offices in Pagosa Springs and Durango, Griffin explained.

Test sites remain open

Community testing sites remain open and are free to the general public, though the SJBPH press release notes the testing sites are experiencing high volume at this time, and the community is strongly urged to make an appointment and show up on time. 

For more information about testing locally, visit: https://sjbpublichealth.org/testing/. 

Vaccines, boosters
available, antibody
treatment limited

The COVID-19 vaccine is currently available to all community members ages 5 and up. Residents under the age of 18 are only eligible for the Pfizer vaccine at this time. 

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Food and Drug Administration released multiple updates regarding booster eligibility.

All community members ages 12 and up may receive a booster five months after completing an initial series of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. For adults who received the Johnson and Johnson single dose vaccine, the timeline for booster eligibility is two months. Minors are only eligible for the Pfizer booster.

According to the press release, “Receiving a booster is shown to drastically increase protection from severe illness, and clinics with ample supply of all three vaccine types are widely available in both La Plata and Archuleta counties. All SJBPH and Jogan Health clinics can offer first, second, and booster doses for those who are eligible. The full schedule of vaccine clinics and providers is available online with convenient dates and times across both counties.”

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccines, current eligibility, details on vaccine clinics and providers, or to make an appointment, visit: https://sjbpublichealth.org/covid-19-vaccine/.

Jollon also noted Wednesday that the supply of monoclonal antibody treatment is “extremely limited” because there is only one authorized product the federal government believes has good efficacy with the omicron variant.

She noted the situation is changing rapidly and is expected to continue to do so.

Should I just catch COVID and be done with it? 

Jollon and Griffin cautioned against individuals relaxing precautions to become sick in order to get it over with.

“There are still tremendous unknowns about the long-term ramifications of this COVID pandemic,” Jollon said.

While there is evidence Omicron produces a less-severe outcome for many and a shorter course of illness, she said, there is no guarantee that every individual exposed will be one of the patients who will experience it mildly.

Some, she noted, have comorbidities and vulnerabilities that they don’t know about until there’s a new infection, calling it “taking a tremendous gamble with your health.”

Griffin echoed that sentiment, noting the longer-term health impacts of COVID remain unknown.

The pair also pointed to hospital capacity and limited health care resources as reasons to not try to get it over with.

Jollon referred back to a phrase bandied about early in the pandemic: Flatten the curve.

If COVID “rips through” everyone and a small percentage of people need intervention, that will still stress resources and can guarantee those who need intervention won’t have the best possible outcome.

Griffin further noted it is important to limit and prevent infection in your household in order to allow kids to attend school, essential workers to go to work, and for essential businesses, as well as other businesses, to continue to function.

They continued to stress a layered approach of measures, including masking, staying home when symptomatic, limiting exposures, being vaccinated and boosted, and testing when appropriate.

Local outbreaks

As of noon Wednesday, four outbreaks had been confirmed in Archuleta County, according to SJBPH’s data dashboard, though Jollon cautioned that with the current levels of infection in the area, “it’s really impossible to ascertain what’s a cluster, what’s an outbreak of cases.”

She noted that with such a high probability of an individual running into infection, attempting to identify sources of spread is not as effective of a way to contain spread.

Griffin reported that, as of Sunday, the outbreak at the Archuleta County jail continued to include five cases — two staff members and three inmates. The first case was identified on Dec. 4. 

As of Sunday, Pagosa Springs Middle School’s outbreak remained at 13 cases — 12 students and one staff member. The first case was confirmed on Nov. 2. 

As of Sunday, the outbreak at Pagosa Springs High School was up to 10 cases — three staff members and seven students. The first case was confirmed on Oct. 29.

An outbreak is identified as five cases associated with a single facility in a 14-day period, or two cases in a 14-day period in congregate settings, such as long-term care facilities.

randi@pagosasun.com