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Something is going on – whether it be person-to-person transmission or community spread, there have been 61 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in Chaffee County in just the past seven days; 25 of them in students under the age of 18. In the latest Chaffee COVID Dashboard for the past 14 days, the county has seen 122 cases; a combination of high numbers of unvaccinated residents, as well as some breakthrough cases.

Chaffee County has the highest per capita percentage of six to 11-year-olds with COVID in the state of Colorado. Many might say that in a county that in the last school year successfully managed to be one of the few in the country to run in-person classes without major outbreaks — the numbers are alarming.

COVID-19 vaccine Photo by Hakan-Nural for unsplash

“It is not good. Our case count is as high as it has been and we are seeing a steady stream of breakthrough cases,” said Chaffee Board of Health Chair Greg Felt, who indicated how discouraging the recent news is. “Both school districts are dealing with a fair number of cases and this raises questions about staffing as well as health.”

“[Public Health] had a rough week last week and this week has been rougher … schools have to figure out how to stay open … we have to stand firm on things we know that work,” he added.

In the past 14 days, five people have been hospitalized at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center (HRRMC) with COVID, and in the same period of time, 24 COVID cases have passed through the HRRMC Emergency Room.

According to Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) the outbreaks are not just in Chaffee County Schools. Alarmingly, they include Columbine Manor. “We’re trying to do what we can to prevent what happened at the beginning[of the pandemic]. All staff and all but one resident are fully-vaccinated,” said CCPH Director Andrea Carlstrom. “But three residents have tested positive, one died, but not due to COVID, and there are two staff testing positive. We’re working on boosters.”

Carlstrom stressed that there will be some variability among types of quarantines imposed between in-school settings and out-of-school testing. “We’re doing what we can to keep kids in in-person learning… with robust testing and masking.”

Salida Schools have been in a mask mandate for two weeks since a COVID student outbreak across multiple campuses. Now five staff are positive for COVID, more staff have stomach flu and colds. “It’s been about staff, not students, and it’s hitting classes for the younger ages first,” said Superintendent David Blackburn. “We have so many classes at Longfellow with parents who work there — we’ve been one domino away from not being able to keep school open.”

He indicated that he’ll ask the Salida School Board for approval to continue with masks until Thanksgiving, saying, “If I can keep one or two more people in the classroom – it will help keep school in-person. Doing mandatory testing we’re catching [COVID-positive] kids earlier.”

“We’re in a similar place,” said Buena Vista School Superintendent Lisa Yates. “We too did surveillance testing. Our cases are nearly all in the high school but it impacts on staff — decisions about how do you keep classrooms filled when you are sending staff people home, sick, or with their kids sick …That’s what’s wearing.”

Speaking about the state situation, Carlstrom warned, “If we stay on this transmission trajectory, we can expect a hospital surge by December 5. We’ve got just over 1,600 hospital beds in Colorado. If we do a bit better, the surge will be around Nov. 10, with only 1,279 beds needed. … but if we do worse,  the surge will come by Dec. 10 needing 2,269 beds. That surpasses our bed capacity.”

Locally as well as statewide said Carlstrom, “This is being driven by the unvaccinated and immunity is waning for the older population that got vaccinated earlier. We’re expecting first we’ll have a COVID surge, then a flu surge.”

Felt acknowledged that while this concerning rise in cases is occurring, the county is plugging away at improving its vaccination rates for both COVID and flu. The county booster clinics have been well-attended, and Chaffee is getting ready to vaccinate a younger cohort of youth ages five to 11.

There are a few pieces of good news:

  • This week Chaffee County hit a milestone – 75 percent of residents have received at least one vaccine dose and  70.5 percent are fully vaccinated. While this is good news, it is also true that vaccine immunity drops at around six months (although not as much for the Moderna vaccine) and that is why boosters are necessary.
  • Vaccines have been announced for kids ages five to 11, and there will be vaccine clinics for them (the last vaccination clinics by public health this year). The first is scheduled for Nov. 12 at Longfellow Elementary (a walk-up, NOT drive-up event) as well as a Nov. 15-16 kids vaccine event at the former CMC campus building.
  • CCPH is piloting a testing bus at the Buena Vista Community Center on Sat. Oct. 30. If it goes well, it will come down to Salida another part of the day. “We’re promoting this to our service industry workers who work weekend shifts,” explained Carlstrom.

But before that happens there is a particularly vulnerable segment of our population who aren’t yet vaccinated. Even with the recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine for ages five to 11, that leaves our youngest — children and infants under the age of five — defenseless and dependent upon the actions of their parents, their teachers, and their community to do the right thing.

The situation that the state — and this county — finds itself in, with cases rising even as national cases are falling, should raise questions about the proper response at this point in time.

This is not political. Anyone who makes this political does not have the health and safety of county residents in mind — theirs is a different agenda. This is public safety.  As Colorado and Chaffee residents, we expect our leaders to do their jobs

If all this raises questions within you about where we are headed with this pandemic in the long term, you are asking the right questions.

For those not familiar with it, this is the Chaffee County COVID Dashboard: that is regularly updated on the current COVID situation. By far the largest population segment with COVID at the moment are kids ages 18 and under – who for the first time represent the highest percentage of new COVID cases — 27.3 percent.