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The Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) that also functions as our County Board of Health held a lengthy discussion regarding the county’s response to the current COVID-19 surge, with Chaffee County Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom on Tuesday. On Thursday, they repeated it, this time with the Chaffee COVID-19 Leadership Roundtable.

Both times, their concerns regarding this latest COVID surge of Omicron ( we’ve lost count — it might be the fourth, or the fifth surge) and what it means for Chaffee County were at the forefront. But those concerns have not resulted in a county mask mandate. The BoCC settled for a mask mandate only in all county buildings, and with strong encouragement to the public – whether vaccinated or not, to wear facemasks.

Their concerns do appear warranted. The county has seen 187 reported COVID cases in the past 14 days — 134 of them in the past seven days alone. This is most likely severely underreported; as people taking at-home COVID tests aren’t reporting the results to the state, and some folks aren’t testing at all.

“Omicron is doing what we predicted…hitting sooner and harder here in Chaffee County,” said Carlstrom. “We are seeing a surge in Omicron due to the holidays, we are also just recognizing there are many who are home testing positive, and not telling us …

Masks required for all. These signs have gone up on all Chaffee County-owned buildings. Many county businesses are following suit. The decision on whether or not customers are to wear masks is made by the business owner, and they have the right to enforce their own rules. Image courtesy Salida Chamber of Commerce and Chaffee County Public Health

We are working with reduced isolation (from 10 days to five) and quarantine expectations announced by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and now we are updating all our policies, algorithms and protocols, and next will be our public health order. After this shortened five- days isolation is a five-day mask-wearing period.”

Carlstrom stressed that even if vaccinated, residents can get a breakthrough case and that facemasks are a defensive strategy– but both are good ones. “We are seeing that cloth masks are only 30-35 percent effective. Medical-grade masks are 90 to 95 percent effective. Chaffee County EMS has done two events this past week handing out N95 masks and may do so again next week.

Last week also, the federal government announced the rollout of a more robust testing program, because the current rapid COVID tests have limitations. “We need optimal testing strategies. Our PCR test is the optimal test – the rapid tests give a false sense of security,” said Carlstrom.

Nationally, the country is in a tsunami of the Omicron variant – topping 600,000 to one million cases a day. Alarmingly, this surge of the Omicron variant seems to be affecting children more than previous strains; pediatric hospitalizations are up more than 34 percent nationwide.

The nation went from more than 53 million cases last Monday to more than 58 million cases today and the pace shows no signs of slowing. The problem is swamping businesses, schools and government services who are attempting to keep operating.

Amongst the bad news, was good news. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this past week approved the COVID boosters for ages 12 to 15 and decreased the timeline post-second dose from six months to five months. On Tuesday, it also approved boosters for the 5-11 age group with suppressed immune systems.

BoCC and CCPH Encourage Virtual Meetings and Events

“We are advising folks to go virtual or hybrid until we know how serious this Omicron surge is,” said Carlstrom. “As of yesterday there were three hospitalized COVID cases; two were unvaccinated and one was there for a procedure and was found to be COVID positive.”

“We have a monoclonal antibody bus on-site at HRRMC for the next two weeks, she added ruefully, but they don’t have the antiviral that works on Omicron. We just don’t have the antivirals here in Colorado.”

She added that in addition to COVID, the state is seeing a wave of colds, and bronchial illnesses, and flu season is starting and that the Omicron variant has different symptoms than earlier variants. “Now we’re seeing more of a bronchial/throat symptom, not as much nasal congestion, fatigue, with a phenomenon that symptoms start quickly after contact with an infected person. much quicker than with the Delta variant.

The situation means vaccinations are more important than ever. “Now fully-vaccinated is three shots – including what we used to call boosters. Even if you get sick, you’ll have a much less serious case if you’ve been vaccinated, which is the point,” said Carlstrom.

“By taking up a bed, even if your COVID isn’t life-threatening, you’re taking up a bed for someone who needs a knee replacement, or back surgery, or had a heart attack,” commented Commissioner Keith Baker.

“It seems likely we’re going to be experiencing this surge over the next month to two months,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. He continued: “We shouldn’t be relaxing anything right now – if anything we should be tightening it – two months is adequate,” said Felt. “We can always loosen it sooner than that – but what we do with this reinforces the messaging we’re trying to get out consistently throughout the county. It’s not over. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better, that’s why we’re taking these steps.”

The BoCC agreed to a hybrid meeting format, allowing masked, key players to present in-person applications, but requiring other meeting attendees to continue to attend via Zoom, with hopes for a relatively quick return to a safer environment.

“Hybrid is the way things are going to be until we come up with something better. At this point, we should emphasize the remote meeting access and limit in-person to applicants while we’re in this Omicron surge and get it beaten back down,” said Baker. “This is a serious situation … this is a modest, inexpensive, easily done measure that will help save lives and prevent the spread of the infection… we still don’t know where we are in this pandemic.”

In the end, the BoCC boiled their policy down to these steps:

  • Require facemasks in county buildings;
  • Limit in-person participation to key players and direct all other county board to remain in virtual mode for the next two months;
  • Set the policy for one month and review it Feb. 1;
  • Work directly with Logan Simpson ( the firm hired to begin work on the county’s new Land Use Code) to come up with solutions on how best to achieve good community engagement so this work is not delayed.