Guest commentary: Pitkin County residents, visitors need to remain diligent over holiday weeks
A year ago, Pitkin County was a hot mess. Only one other county in Colorado had a higher COVID incidence rate.
This year, our high vaccination rates and indoor mask requirements have made us one of the few counties in early December with a seven-day incidence rate of less than 100 cases per 100,000, while most of Colorado has remained in the red with high rates of transmission.
We have learned a lot over the past two pandemic years.
The Pitkin County Public Health department has worked tirelessly to investigate 4,111 cases. The staff have talked with more than 10,100 contacts, sent in more than 2,400 testing referrals, spoken with 300 organizations/groups, and controlled 113 outbreaks. They have also reviewed 104 safety plans, helping organizations and event planners operate safely.
As a result of mitigation measures and widespread vaccination of our residents, our cumulative hospitalizations and death counts have been remarkably low. We have had a total of six deaths while neighboring Eagle and Garfield have had 32 and 75, respectively. One in every 100 seniors in the U.S. has died of the virus, as we have now surpassed 800,000 COVID deaths in our nation.
In Pitkin County, 17,000 residents, representing 98% of the eligible population, have received 33,000 COVID vaccines and 4,000-plus booster shots.
During this school year, our children have been learning in person. Without the school mask mandate, 910 kids with exposures in our county would have had to quarantine, resulting in thousands of missed days of school.
Where do we go from here? Our county will continue to vaccinate. There are 1,000 booster appointments scheduled before the end of the year. We are still learning about the omicron variant that is spreading rapidly in the United States. This variant is in Garfield County and probably also in our community. In Europe, omicron infections are doubling every two to three days, and evading immunity acquired through natural infection or vaccination at three times the rate of delta.
Vaccine boosters still provide significant antibody protection against all variants, and the CDC has recommended a booster shot for everyone 16 and older at least six months after the second mRNA vaccine, or two months after the J&J vaccine.
As we go into the holiday and high tourist season and our cases rise, we can reduce our risks of delta and omicron by the following:
If you are still in the minority of unvaccinated residents, please get your vaccine. It will protect you from serious illness and having long COVID, which will ruin your ski season and 2022. In Colorado, an unvaccinated person has almost 10 times the risk of testing positive and 50 times the risk of dying of COVID than a vaccinated person.
Get a booster shot, if you are eligible. Coloradans who have had a booster shot are almost 2.4 times less likely to test positive and 3.3 times less likely to be hospitalized than someone fully vaccinated but not boostered.
Vaccinate your children (5+ are eligible). Our county has already vaccinated nearly 500 of our 5-11 year olds.
Find a vaccination clinic at covid19.pitkincounty.com or check with your primary care physician.
Take a 15-minute COVID antigen test before seeing an at risk or elderly individual or meeting in a large group. A rapid test taken hours before an event is more accurate for determining your contagiousness than a PCR test taken two or three days ago. Free Binax rapid tests are available from our state. Sign up at covid19.colorado.gov to have eight tests sent to your home.
The Pitkin County website lists multiple options for free testing here.
Wear a mask indoors in public. We know that they work, and that surgical or KN95 or KF94 masks (now readily available) are very effective at filtering out variants.
Plan your gatherings
Depending on your risk profile and tolerance, you may want to avoid large gatherings. You will lower your risk by gathering in smaller groups and with other vaccinated people.
Patronize fully vaccinated businesses. Pitkin County has 48 fully vaccinated businesses where indoor masks are optional. Vaccinated people are less likely to become infected, and if they do have a breakthrough infection, will be less likely to be contagious since they shed virus for fewer days.
Meet your friends outside, where there is virtually no transmission. If you are meeting inside, crack a window if it’s not too cold. Fresh air will keep COVID from concentrating indoors.
Weigh your risks when making travel plans. Are you likely to be exposed at your destination? Airline travel is relatively safe with required masking. Most airplanes have excellent ventilation with frequent air changes during flight. You are more likely to be infected in line for food at the airport. Keep your mask on between sips and bites.
Talk to your health care provider if you have questions about vaccines and how to keep yourself and your families safe during the holidays. There is a lot of confusing information and misinformation on social media and the internet. Our knowledge of COVID is constantly evolving.
Please enjoy your holidays and stay healthy.
The Pitkin County Board of Health includes Markey Butler; Christa Gieszl MD; Claudia Kirby; Tom Kurt, MD, MPH; Greg Poschman; Jeannie Seybold, MD; and Linda Viera, CNM.
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