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Round Four: Another COVID-19 Surge is Upon Us

The obvious can no longer be ignored. The U.S. appears to have entered a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic; with cases surging in all 50 states, rising hospitalizations, and rising death rates. This time the surge is being called “a pandemic of the unvaccinated”. More than 83 percent of those cases are fueled by the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is surging across the world.

“This is news we’ve been predicting. Because of stagnant vaccine rates, the Delta variant is winning. We need to start preparing for the next surge,” said Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) Director Andrea Carlstrom during the July 22 COVID-19 Leadership Roundtable session. “We’ll start hearing it as the pandemic for the un-vaccinated … that is what is playing out nationally; case rates are tripled, deaths have doubled. Most are unvaccinated, including those partially vaccinated. We’re seeing surges in states where vaccination rates are low and population density is high.”

States, counties, and municipalities are re-instigating mask mandates and pleading with the public to get vaccinated. Tourist areas on the east coast are discussing implementing vaccine passports, which are being done in large swaths of Europe.

“Last year at this time was when we peaked for the summer,” added Carlstrom.” The better news — if you can call it that — is that Colorado is less worse off than other states. We were top for incidents, but not any longer — our neighboring states are those states in major surges. We’re having to shift from prevention [back] to mitigation again despite the fact that we have the tools to combat it — the vaccines.”

According to Carlstrom, “In Chaffee County, 100 percent of hospitalized cases are unvaccinated people and 89 percent are infected with the Delta variant.”

COVID-19 mitigation protocols included a state-wide mask mandate. Now local public health protocols are in place in many areas. Image courtesy Salida Chamber of Commerce and Chaffee County Public Health

The surge appears driven by lagging vaccination rates, the relaxation of pandemic protocols, and at least in hot and humid southern states, more indoor time in air conditioning.

While most new COVID-19 cases are related to the Delta variant, which is surging around the globe, there are a small number of what are called “breakthrough cases”, among people who have been vaccinated.

Statewide, Colorado had seen a gradual increase in cases but recently has seen a surge in hospitalizations. This may be due both to the timeframe following Fourth of July gatherings and the Delta variant. Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center is reporting a steady stream of cases, and CCPH is going to start tracking which vaccines are related to the relatively rare breakthrough cases.

Carlstrom said that CCPH is advising Columbine Manor on enhanced mitigation strategies and is planning to go back to protocols and daily testing, which was done last year to get the virus under control in the long-term care facility.

CDPHE Publishes k-12 Return to School Protocols

The Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment released its K-12 guidance document last Wednesday, which advises schools to take a “layered approach, ” to begin the school year. The guidance remains recommended, not required. It sees a higher risk for schools due to the recent surges, and includes a warning for schools and regions where vaccination rates have not reached 70 percent:

  • Those schools in areas where the vaccination rate is 70 percent or less among those who can be vaccinated, or…
  • Schools that have a vaccination rate of under 70 percent of staff and students (schools are permitted to look up the vaccination data of students in the Colorado database.)

Chaffee County’s vaccination rate of eligible residents is under 64 percent; meaning this county already falls into that warning category. Children under the age of 12 still cannot even get the vaccines. Schools in counties where the COVID-19 case count rises above 35 cases per 100,00 people may have to curtail out-of-school activities like sports, band, and orchestra.

“This means in this county, we have to keep under seven cases to avoid this,” said Carlstrom, about the Chaffee County status. “Last time I checked, depending on the day — we were 11 cases per 100,000. Maybe if people realize that school operations could be impacted by this — things like sports, band, orchestra, those settings for higher risk …” Her voice trailed off. “We are strongly recommending mitigation strategies.”

“This will be another demanding season if the projections are accurate,” said Carlstrom. “I wish I could be more optimistic. I don’t know how our county will be exempt from what we are seeing in other countries, states, and counties … we should all be concerned. I can’t underscore that enough. There is no value in sugar-coating what we see.”

Featured image: COVID-19 Delta variant. Image courtesy of WebMD