Colorado marks third state for omicron as Pitkin County COVID-19 rate drops
The new omicron COVID-19 variant officially arrived in Colorado on Thursday after state public health officials confirmed a positive test from an Arapahoe County woman who’d recently traveled to South Africa.
The new mutation — feared to be more contagious than the delta variant that swelled case numbers this summer and fall — had not yet been detected in Pitkin County, however, where COVID-19 transmission rates are decreasing, said Jordana Sabella, county public health director.
“After we resolved the hockey outbreak, we’ve come back down to where we were before the outbreak occurred,” Sabella said Thursday. “We’re still waiting to see what the effects of Thanksgiving have been.”
As of Wednesday, Pitkin County’s incidence rate stood at 107 per 100,000 residents, down from a weekly high of 163 on Sunday, according to the county’s COVID-19 website. That’s still within the CDC’s definition of “high” transmission because it is above 100 per 100,000 people, though it’s come down a lot from highs in recent weeks.
Eighteen new COVID-19 cases were detected among residents in the county during the seven-day period ending Wednesday, plus one other out-of-county case, for a total of 19 in the past week, according to the county website.
Local public health officials expect to see the results of the Thanksgiving holiday start to show up at the beginning of next week, Sabella said.
While the general COVID-19 epidemiological curve statewide is decreasing, hospital capacity across the state continues to be challenged by both COVID-19 patients and those suffering from the normal range of ailments that haven’t gone anywhere despite the pandemic, she said. Around 90% of ICU beds in the state were occupied as of Thursday, while more than 80 % of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated, according to state and local databases.
Aspen Valley Hospital remained under “comfortable” status Thursday, though the facility’s ability to transfer out patients in need of a higher level of care was classified as “cautious.”
The state public health department’s news release Thursday about the omicron variant didn’t say when the Arapahoe County woman, who had “recently” traveled to South Africa “for tourism,” tested positive for COVID-19. The woman’s test was flagged by state epidemiologists because of her recent travel history, and a team collected another specimen from her for gene sequencing, according to the release.
“She is experiencing minor symptoms and is isolated and recuperating at home,” according to the CDPHE statement. “She had been fully vaccinated and was eligible for the booster vaccine but had not received it yet.”
CDPHE issued an isolation order for the woman and found that her close contacts tested negative. The CDC was coordinating an interstate contact-tracing search for passengers on the woman’s flights who might have been exposed, the release states.
Colorado marks the third state, behind California and Minnesota, with confirmed cases of the omicron variant.
“There is still a lot to learn about the omicron variant, but due to some of the mutations on the spike protein of the virus, it is possible that omicron might be more transmissible, or immune response may not be as effective,” according to Thursday’s CDPHE news release. “The World Health Organization has classified this variant as a variant of concern.”
Anyone who has recently traveled internationally should take a COVID-19 test 3 to 5 days after returning home regardless of symptoms or vaccination history, according to the release.
Pitkin County recently opened a new, free COVID-19 testing site at the Snowmass Village Town Hall to go along with similar sites in the alley behind the former Aspen City Hall and at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport, Sabella said.
All positive COVID-19 tests in Pitkin County are sent to the state lab for analysis in an effort to keep watch for omicron in the area, she said. Colorado sequences the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 positive tests in the country, which amounts to about 11% of all positives statewide.
The Pitkin County Board of Health — scheduled to meet Dec. 9 — likely will have a robust conversation about the omicron variant, Sabella said.
Meanwhile, the delta variant remains the dominant infectious strain of COVID-19 here and across the country.
An outbreak of COVID-19 among youth and adult hockey players who competed in games at two rinks in Aspen and one in Glenwood Springs on Nov. 5-7 ended up sickening a total of 93 people, Sabella said. That included 31 adults, 45 children and 17 “residual” cases among people initially exposed during the hockey games.
The outbreak sent local COVID-19 metrics sky-high, with incidence rates in the 300s, and caught the attention of officials with the state public health department. Before that, transmission rates had been dropping, partially because of the indoor facemask mandate — instituted by the county board of health Sept. 16, local public health officials have said.
“What we saw was that many of those who had additional contact with those hockey players were vaccinated, so it was able to be controlled fairly quickly,” Sabella said. “Upward of 90% of those exposed in the hockey setting were vaccinated … (and) we saw a number of breakthrough cases.”
The outbreak likely occurred because of the “high-intensity nature of hockey” and because of lax indoor mask use at the rinks, she said.
Overall, 475 Pitkin County fully vaccinated residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since April 1, a breakthrough rate of 3% of all 13,498 fully vaccinated residents, according to the county’s COVID-19 website Thursday.
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