El Paso County is now leading Colorado with the highest number of confirmed cases of two highly infectious variant strains of COVID, as it prepares to open up vaccine eligibility to the general public on Friday.
State health data on Wednesday showed that of Colorado's nearly 900 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant discovered in Britain, 144 are in El Paso County. Additionally, El Paso County is home to 46 cases of the state’s total 328 confirmed B.1.427/429 variant cases, a strain discovered in California. The state had more than 1,200 variant cases, including the California, UK and South African strains, according to state data.
The state is sequencing 5% of the its positive COVID-19 samples, and it's likely that there are more variants statewide, said Jessica Bralish, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Thus, it's not clear if El Paso County has the most variant cases, she said.
"It’s not possible to draw any particular conclusions about regional disease transmission from total variant cases in each county," she said.
During investigations involving a variant case, the state sequences positive tests from all known contacts, so officials are more likely to find additional variant cases, she said.
Available state data shows the number of British variant cases in El Paso County have tripled in eight days, said Colorado College Professor Phoebe Lostroh, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology from Harvard University.
At the same time, state data shows the levels of virus showing up in El Paso County wastewater has been rising since early March. The percentage of people testing positive is also up to almost 7%, well above the 5% positivity recommended by the World Health Organization for reopening.
Teller County is also experiencing the same upturn in cases, county officials announced Wednesday. The uptick means the county will again tighten restrictions as it moves from "level blue" to "level yellow" on Colorado's color-coded COVID-19 dial, the state's method of determining the severity of restrictions in various counties.
These signs in El Paso County point to a possible fourth wave of the virus.
“Vaccination is going to help us and probably make the peak lower, but not necessarily prevent it,” Lostroh said.
The UK variant, the most common in El Paso County, is more transmissible and more deadly, so it is possible that younger residents in their 40s and 50s are going to need to be hospitalized, she said.
The number of COVID-19 cases in the community is higher than during the summer peak, and if the community saw another wave, it could put pressure on hospitals, she said. But she doesn't expect to see cases reach the level of the winter peak.
El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said the county monitors the presence of the variants locally in collaboration with the state health department.
“With a new, novel virus like this, we’re learning as we go,” Wheelan said. “It’s a bit of a wait-and-see approach.”
Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that the COVID-19 vaccines are effective at reducing a person’s risk of serious illness, including hospitalizations and death, she said.
Lostroh, who has a history of highly accurate El Paso County virus projections, previously told The Gazette there is some evidence suggesting the COVID-19 vaccines may be slightly less effective against variant viruses.
“What we know is that the serum still reacts with the variant viruses, but not as strongly as it does with the normal virus,” Lostroh said. “So you do get an immunity against the variants, but a reduced one.”
But the COVID-19 vaccine is still the “most effective way to slow and end the spread of the virus,” Wheelan said. “The faster we vaccinate, the faster we can get back to some sort of ‘normal.’”
As the state is set to open vaccine eligibility to all Coloradans over the age of 16 on Friday, local public health leaders and vaccine providers plan to continue using existing hospitals and health care providers to administer the vaccine, as well as hosting mass vaccination and equity clinics in a push to inoculate the rest of the county’s roughly 577,000 residents in that age group, Wheelan said.
County Public Health data on Wednesday showed about 99,400 residents — 13.8% of the county population — have been fully vaccinated.
The county and its health care partners have hosted various vaccination clinics since the first vaccine became available in December.
“That’s how we’re able to steadily realize progress and expand vaccine access,” Wheelan said. “We know what’s effective and we know what will slow or stop COVID. The vaccine is an effective, promising and powerful tool.”
The county has administered 40% of vaccine doses administered total in March, she said, an example of the county’s heightened vaccination efforts.
Public Health also continues seeking out other vaccination opportunities, including expanding vaccine clinics to northern Colorado Springs, using mobile vaccination units through a state program and reaching the county’s rural and frontier communities to vaccinate the county’s farmers and ranchers.
“The goal of our vaccine consortium is to vaccinate everyone as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible,” Wheelan said. “As vaccine supply increases, we are poised to do that.”
She anticipated every county resident who wants to get vaccinated will be able to do so by mid-May.
Even with the vaccine becoming more widely available, Wheelan cautioned residents to continue wearing masks, washing their hands and practicing social distancing.
“We have to remain cautious about our choices and understand there is still a need to consistently practice prevention” to fight the disease, she said. “This is a big community push. The only way we’re going to be successful is if we’re all working together.”