With COVID-19 transmission slowed by immunity through vaccinations and past infections, local and state health officials are scaling back their response while keeping ready should another surge come.
Sunday marked the two-year anniversary of Weld County health officials announcing the virus’ presence in the county. Since its arrival in Weld, the virus has infected more than 81,000 people and killed nearly 650 people, according to the county.
After the latest wave in cases – which started to pick up in mid-December in Weld County before peaking in January – cases have dropped to lows not seen since last summer. Mark Lawley, executive director of the Weld County Department of Public Environment and Health, said he met with local hospital system officials earlier this month as part of his regular weekly meetings and heard the situation has improved.
“The hospitals were getting hit pretty hard with cases, a lot of people in the ICU with COVID,” he said of the December-January spike in cases. “It’s improved on their end. They still have cases, but it’s nothing like it was a few months ago. “
Though the omicron variant generally causes less severe disease than prior variants, its ability to evade immunity pushed daily case counts to new highs in the past two months. Weld County’s daily cases peaked at 1,024 on Jan. 24. Prior to the most recent wave, the most cases reported in a single day was 437 in November 2020.
Mitzi Moran, CEO of Sunrise Community Health, said the latest surge was difficult to battle, particularly for those in health care.
“During the other surges, the rest of the community and community leaders were trying to help. They were masking. They were staying home. They weren’t holding big events, ”she said. “This surge, that was all gone.”
The lack of support relative to prior surges made the decrease in transmission all the more relieving, she said. Sunrise’s walk-in numbers are down considerably, from nearly 1,000 in mid-January to the normal of about 200 to 250.
In Weld County, the positive test rate is 3.27%, almost a tenth of what it was in mid-January. That statistic is likely artificially deflated by the wider availability of at-home testing resulting in fewer cases reported to health authorities, Moran warned.
The state began scaling down community vaccination sites in late February, as Gov. Jared Polis announced the state’s roadmap to prepare for future surges of the virus. The plan includes establishing readiness standards, surge planning, investing in the health care work force, normalizing COVID-19 treatment in traditional settings and engaging the federal government in endemic response, pandemic readiness and other reforms.
The lull is giving health officials the opportunity to put resources into dealing with other concerns.
While county officials will still track COVID-19 and publish data regularly, it has scaled back the frequency and detail of case and hospital data. Sunrise is turning its focus back to primary care, which was limited due to the need to divert resources to COVID-19 care.
“This was a long dark tunnel with no light, and now that light’s getting bigger, and we can see it,” Moran said. “There’s some emotional relief there.”
Lawley said the county is continuing its strategy to encourage testing and vaccinations, administering vaccines to as many people who want to be vaccinated and continuing case investigations.
Part of the state’s plan includes updating disease investigation and surveillance systems, including early warning surveillance of wastewater, which can alert authorities to rises in cases before they’re picked up in community testing. Moran said she hopes lessons learned from the pandemic about how to pivot quickly with COVID-19 surges will stick around.
“We are poised and read should another surge com, and I believe that’s true for our hospital systems,” she said. “Throughout the 24 months, the supply chain of testing, the supply chain of masks and personal protective equipment, the supply chain of vaccines – that got tested nationally, internationally – that got pressure-tested hard.”
Eric Aakko, director of health education, communication and planning for Weld Health, said the pandemic was unprecedented for the public health agency, as well as others across the state and country.
“This was the worst global pandemic that we have seen in over 100 years. Our public health agency didn’t get founded until 1938, ”he said. “It’s remarkable over the two years that we’ve been at this aggressively, we’ve really had to step up as well as learn, but we’ve worked together with our partners, and we’ve learned together.”
Partnerships have been essential to the pandemic response, as hospitals communicated more to ensure there were resources to treat patients, health agencies shared information regularly and even private companies helped administer vaccines at no cost.
Vaccination rates at the county and state levels have continued to rise, giving communities greater protection against severe outcomes from COVID-19. In Weld, about 62.1% of people 5 and up have been fully vaccinated. The rate is nearly 69% for adults in the county. Statewide, more than 73% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday published a study finding two or three doses of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine was associated with a 90% reduction in risk for ventilation or death.
“On behalf of all of us here at Sunrise, we thank that 70% and that 60-some% for leaning in, getting their vaccine, helping to do what they can do to end this pandemic and move this into something more like the flu , ”Moran said.
For the immunocompromised and others at high risk of severe disease, COVID-19 may continue to feel like a precarious and scary situation. Moran said that’s one reason she’s happy to continue wearing a mask whenever she feels any respiratory symptoms.
“I have really enjoyed not being sick over the last two years, not having the flu,” she said. “So moving forward, I’m going to continue masking if I have any kind of respiratory symptoms just out of respect and care for the people around me.”
Aakko said health officials know the virus will mutate again, as that’s just the nature of viruses. A more contagious subvariant of omicron has been detected in Colorado, but prior infections from the most recent omicron surge may lend enough immunity to prevent another wave of severe illness.
“We’re in a better place now after two years, having worked together with our partners, having worked with the state health department,” Aakko said. “We’ve gotten a far better knowledge of what the virus is and how it works.”
Sunrise offers vaccines and boosters on a walk-in basis 8 am to 6 pm weekdays at Monfort Family Clinic, 2930 11th Ave., Evans, and Loveland Community Health Center, 302 3rd Street SE, Loveland. Walk-ins are accepted regardless of patient status with Sunrise. For more information about vaccine opportunities in Weld, go to bit.ly/GetVaxWeld21.