022521-news-epcvax (copy)

Army veteran Larry Stamps, 75, receives his second COVID-19 vaccine in February at the PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs. El Paso County’s COVID-19 cases continue to fall, but vaccination efforts are also slowing.

This week the average number of COVID-19 cases in El Paso County hit a low not seen since before the winter peak, but the community is still not improving as fast as other large counties. 

El Paso County Public Health data shows the weekly average number of new coronavirus cases has fallen below 100 per 100,000 people to about 98 cases per 100,000 for the first time since October.

"This is an encouraging trend, and something we want to continue to see," said Michelle Hewitt, El Paso County Public Health spokeswoman. 

However, the community is still lagging behind other large counties, such as Denver, Jefferson, Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe, that all have an weekly average rate of less than 40 new cases per 100,000. 

"El Paso County still has one of the highest incidence levels compared to other large Colorado counties, so there is certainly more work to be done. The lower we can drive disease transmission levels, the better," Hewitt said. 

At the same time the number of people getting vaccinated each week in El Paso County is slowing down, despite incentive efforts such as the state's vaccination lottery. Public and military-run vaccination clinics administered about 13,700 doses last week down from about 18,000 the week prior. The number of doses administered is close to January levels when the availability of the vaccine was highly limited. 

Despite $1 million incentive program, Colorado's vaccination rates continue sluggish pace

Hewitt said as the spread of disease has slowed and mask orders have been relaxed the sense of urgency around getting vaccinated may have slackened.

"The perceived risk may not be as high, and there may also be people who are approaching vaccinations from more of a “wait and see” mentality," Hewitt said. As public safety restrictions are eased, unvaccinated people face a high risk of exposure, she said. 

About 48% of the county's eligible population was fully vaccinated. The county had aimed to have 70% of its eligible population vaccinated by July 4, but does not expect to hit that goal now. 

The virus is still more prevalent than it was during the summer peak in 2020 and county data show 710 people have tested positive in the last week.

Outbreaks, while on the decline, are also ongoing and the county has seen 19 in the last three weeks. The state updated its definition of an outbreak for most settings at the beginning of June to encompass five or more confirmed or probable cases over two weeks up from two. Public health officials are still managing all outbreaks to guide cleaning and other mitigation, Hewitt said.  

KinderCare Learning Center on Vickers Drive reported the county's largest outbreak state health department data shows since May 22 with 8 staff members and 10 children testing positive. Kindercare closed the site after the outbreak and began reopening classrooms on Monday as teachers recover or return from quarantine, said Colleen Moran, a spokeswoman for the company. Kindercare strongly encourages staff to get vaccinated and requires teachers and children 3 and older to wear masks, among other safety measures, she said. 

At the end of April, schools were accounting for 40% of the county's outbreaks but that has dropped off. In the last three weeks, five outbreaks were reported at schools or daycare settings.  

The city of Colorado Springs' administration building also saw an outbreak in recent weeks. 

The administration building saw seven cases, but the city cannot release what department experienced the cases because of federal health rules, said Kim Melchor, city spokeswoman. The building houses numerous departments including the mayor's office, finance, planning, innovation, engineering. The mayor was not exposed and is fully vaccinated, she said. 

The city's employees returned to in-person office work on May 17 ahead of the outbreak that was reported to public health on May 28,  Melchor said. The city is not requiring vaccinations but they are strongly encouraged and employees had an opportunity to get vaccinated for over a month before they returned to work, she said. The city was also checking employee temperatures and symptoms ahead of the outbreak, among other social distancing and prevention efforts, she said. 

The state encourages employers to encourage vaccinations and safety by hosting vaccine clinics, offering incentives such as bonuses, encouraging unvaccinated people to wear masks and providing information about a state law that mandates paid time off to get a vaccine and recover, Hewitt said. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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