Rates of respiratory illness “down to the peaks of previous years” in Pitkin County
Hospitalization rates for COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) appear to be dropping across Colorado, The Denver Post recently reported. However, the transmission rates of respiratory illnesses tell a different story.
The good news is that, as of Jan. 4, Pitkin County had a “medium” COVID-19 positivity rating, down from the “high” rating last reported Dec. 6, according to data from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention.
Over the last few months, however, public-health officials have seen “a decrease in the number of individuals seeking PCR testing,” which may make for a less accurate measure of COVID-19 activity, according to Carly Senst, COVID-19 epidemiologist and response lead for Pitkin County.
To gather more accurate data, the Pitkin County Health Department has been relying on a multitude of different data sets, including reporting from Aspen Valley Hospital, wastewater data, and the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests, according to her.
With this, rates of COVID-19 transmission appear to be higher than they were before the holiday season, she said.
“What we know right now is that, on the tails of the holidays and the busy tourism season, we saw a moderate spike in positivity in our wastewater data, so we know that there is more COVID-19 present than before the holidays or the antithesis of what the state in general is seeing,” Senst said.
“We are likely going to continue to see an elevated level of transmission for at least a couple more weeks,” she said.
While there are lower rates of respiratory illnesses compared to previous months, the rates are still “down to the peaks of previous years,” according to Dr. Kim Levin, emergency department physician at Aspen Valley Hospital and Pitkin County medical officer.
“We’re still high, but it’s on a downward trend,” said Levin. “Of course, for any of these three big players (RSV, COVID-19, and influenza) at this point, we can see a second spike, and we have seen second spikes in previous years. So, that’s something that’s unpredictable at this point.”
In addition, with the new year comes new challenges for accessing COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in Pitkin County. As of Jan. 1, the county expired free testing and vaccinations.
Now, “individuals will need to get vaccines from their medical providers and may incur administrative charges for the services provided — but not for the vaccine, as that is given for free from the federal government,” according to Aspen Times reporting on Dec. 9.
Triple-demic in Pitkin County
According to Levin, in December, Pitkin County was “basically in a triple pandemic for RSV, influenza, and COVID-19.”
“There have been unusual and very steep, high trajectories early on for these viruses this season, especially influenza and RSV,” said Levin. “We saw spikes happening in November, and very high in December; and I think that, together, was the perfect storm, looking at the possibility of a triple pandemic.”
While hospitalizations for RSV and COVID-19 appear to be lowering, Aspen Valley Hospital is seeing higher rates of influenza A — the most predominant influenza strain, according to Levin.
Transmission rates of influenza still remain at a “very high” level in Colorado, according to the CDC, making the state one of six to receive the highest ranking as of Dec. 24.
According to Senst, Pitkin County experiences “similar waves of communicable respiratory pathogens as the broader state of Colorado.” However, Pitkin County differs from other places in the state “due to our high population of seasonal and short-term community members,” which makes tracking the transmission of respiratory illnesses more challenging, she said.
“I would imagine,” said Levin, “the numbers are a lot higher with a lot of people who are coming and going with illnesses that we can’t track at all. And, again, a lot of this is not tracked anymore because of home testing.”
No matter where you are, tracking rates of flu and RSV is not as easy to pinpoint as tracking the transmission of COVID-19, according to her.
For example, Pitkin County Department of Health is notified when someone tests positive for COVID-19; however, the health department is only notified about rates of flu or RSV when someone is hospitalized for those illnesses, Senst said.
“Tracking flu and RSV is a bit more challenging since we only receive information regarding hospitalizations of cases,” she said in an email to The Aspen Times. “So, unlike COVID-19, where we get reports of all positive PCR tested cases, regardless of hospitalization status, we only know how many individuals get hospitalized for flu and RSV and not every positive case.”
While influenza in Colorado is at a “very high” level, data from the CDC shows a decline in those testing positive for influenza in Colorado as of Dec. 31, with 20.5% of those tested receiving positive results. As of Dec. 25, 27.6% of those tested for the flu were positive.
Despite the high concern of a “triple-demic,” Aspen Valley Hospital remains at a “comfortable” level.
“We are well equipped to take care of any patient that needs to that needs hospitalization, and the level is comfortable,” said Levin.
Emergency department visits are very high, which is typical for this time of year, according to her.
Protecting the community
To help minimize the spread of respiratory illnesses, Senst recommends staying up-to-date on COVID-19 and flu vaccines, staying home when sick regardless of test results, masking in public — especially in crowded, indoor areas or if you are at high risk for severe illness, and to seek testing through your health-care provider.
According to Levin, masks help to minimize the spread of viruses and can also help you protect yourself from illness.
“I really would stress that vaccination is would be a top priority for anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated, and take care of yourself and prevent spread to others if you are sick,” she said .
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