The omicron variant shows few signs of slowing down, if any, as it sweeps across communities in Southwest Colorado.
Omicron has already overwhelmed public health officials, but they say the region can expect a prolonged surge through at least January. Until that peak comes, communities will face growing caseloads that have already complicated contract-tracing efforts.
“State of Colorado and national modelers have predicted that this spike will peak either in the latter half of January or in the beginning of February, depending on when the spikes started in your local community,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.
In the meantime, the mounting number of cases is beginning to show signs in Southwest Colorado. The Durango Police Department announced Monday it is cutting back on in-office hours and limiting responses in nonemergencies. Likewise, the city of Durango canceled an in-person meeting scheduled for Tuesday night to help limit the spread of the virus. In Montezuma County, a county commissioner is hospitalized with complications from COVID-19 and has been moved to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction.
Some parts of the world have seen their swollen caseloads fall in recent weeks with the United Kingdom showing a leveling of cases and South African officials announcing on Dec. 30 that the country had passed its omicron peak.
Data from NYC Health also shows cases, hospitalizations and deaths in New York City decreasing since the beginning of January.
Jollon said some areas of Colorado are likely ahead of others in their omicron surges and more in line with the trajectory of New York City and other cities first hit by the virus.
“Our mountain communities that receive a lot of travelers seem to be not far behind our coastal states that saw early omicron evidence,” she said.
Those mountain towns often centered around ski areas are “certainly earlier than the rest of the state of Colorado” in their omicron surges, she said.
But for many Southwest Colorado communities, public health officials remain uncertain about their omicron timelines.
“There are still tremendous unknowns,” Jollon said.
“Worldwide there is evidence that there will be a steep increase, followed by a steep decrease,” she said. “But we haven’t seen that yet in the U.S., even in the communities that are well ahead of Colorado.
“Until we start to see different parts of the country leveling off and coming down, it’s hard for the modelers in Colorado to accurately predict where we are in comparison to other communities,” she said.
The ongoing surge in La Plata County is already causing alarm even as the peak remains weeks away.
“We are right now seeing the highest seven day incident rate in our jurisdiction that we have ever seen in 22 months of fighting this pandemic,” Jollon said.
La Plata County’s one-week incidence rate sits at 2,097 cases per 100,000 and almost a third of tests are coming back positive, well above the World Health Organization’s recommendation of a 5% positivity rate.
Since Dec. 1, the county has recorded more than a fifth of its total cases for the entire nearly two-year pandemic.
According to SJBPH data, La Plata County has averaged roughly 200 cases per day in recent days, but that number is likely an underestimate.
“We’re showing about 200 a day, but we’ve also received word from the state of Colorado that there is some missing data, so those numbers will likely revise upward this week,” Jollon said.
The crush of cases is already so high that SJBPH has had to modify its contract-tracing protocols.
In the past, contract tracers with SJBPH have called every positive case and their close contacts. However amid the current surge, they will no longer be able to interview everyone and will instead focus on those who are high-risk.
“We will be working through the positive results that we get from the state, identifying the highest risk categories, doing a phone follow-up case investigation for the highest risk categories, and notifying everybody else by text or email,” Jollon said.
Those considered high-risk include people of advanced age, those who are in long-term care facilities and congregate settings, and those who work at or are in schools.
Everyone else will receive a text or an email with isolation instructions and instructions for informing those they have been in contact with.
SJBPH will also staff its main phone line with contract tracers that anyone can call with questions.
Emerging research suggests omicron is less severe. A recent study in mice and hamsters by a team of American and Japanese scientists found that omicron struggled to infect the lungs as previous variants have, leaving animals with less lung damage and decreasing their mortality risk.
Yet as cases increase exponentially, public health officials are monitoring hospitalizations and deaths.
“With this high rate of cases, we are also closely watching hospitalizations and trying to get a handle on what the level of severe infection, the level of hospitalizations, and the level of fatalities will be in this surge,” Jollon said. “At some point when the infection is so widespread, the metrics of severe illness, hospitalization and fatality really become much more important than the metric of how many cases are in your community.”
Colorado has seen an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks, but the state has yet to surpass the peak of the delta wave, according to Jollon and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data.
While the rest of Colorado saw a decrease in hospitalizations from Thanksgiving through much of December, Southwest Colorado did not. The region has only recently begun to see a decline in hospitalizations as omicron takes off.
“We are now starting to see a downturn in hospitalizations just this week here,” Jollon said. “I think what it really speaks to is there’s still a lot to learn about this omicron variant.”
As omicron surges in Southwest Colorado, residents can protect themselves by getting vaccinated and following up with a booster shot. SJBPH also recommends ditching cotton masks for higher quality masks such as surgical masks and N95, she said.
But neither can replace the simple action of limiting exposure.
“The other thing in addition to masking is budgeting our exposure,” Jollon said. “So keeping a list in your head of things that you must do versus (things that) can wait and planning your activities with your friends and family to take into account that things are very different now than they were in December.”
Anyone who has tested positive and has questions can reach contact tracers with SJBPH at 247-5702.