The latest COVID-19 variant is spreading fast in Eagle County, but it’s too early to tell just what that means for residents and visitors. The main takeaway, according to Vail Health’s chief population health officer, is that we have to learn to live with the virus and use every tool at our disposal to do so.
Vail Health’s Chris Lindley said new cases have increased dramatically in the past few weeks, and that “there’s no doubt” that the recently-discovered omicron variant is driving the surge.
“It’s absolutely driving it, because the rapid increase in acceleration is like nothing we have ever seen, really,” Lindley said.
Eagle County and Vail Health’s testing shows only whether an individual is positive or negative for the virus. Samples are sent to a state lab for testing to determine what virus variant resulted in a positive test. There’s a roughly four-week lag time between sending a sample and results, Lindley said.
But, he added, based on the increase in positive tests, it’s clear the omicron variant is causing the exponential growth of new cases. That includes more “breakthrough” cases for those who have been vaccinated than Vail Health has ever seen across its valley-wide health care system, Lindley said. The omicron variant seems to have supplanted the delta variant that crept across the world earlier this year.
While there are still many unknowns about the omicron variant — except the speed at which it spreads — Lindley said Vail Health and Eagle County Public Health officials are working under the assumption that omicron is as dangerous as the delta variant. That means officials are planning for increased stress on local health resources.
Over 100 cases per day
Vail Health is seeing an increase in the number of COVID-positive patients across its system, with a record number of people coming in for testing, Lindley said.
“We’re planning at the highest level and we hope that we learn in the next few weeks that it’s a mild illness, but we’re planning for the top,” he said. “When you have so many people getting infected at such a short period of time, there is definitely an increase in medical services that’s needed. And we are certainly starting to see that in our community with our patient volume across our entire system. So at our urgent cares and our (emergency department), and even in our in-patient facilities, the volume has increased over the last week. We have more folks coming in for COVID testing than we’ve ever had.”
Given the testing volume, Vail Health’s valley-wide network, as of Monday, “doesn’t have the capacity in this valley today to test everybody who wants to be tested,” Lindley said.
Working with both the state and the county, additional testing resources are on the way. A brand-new walk-up testing site funded by the state in partnership with the county opened Monday in Vail near the Vail Transportation Center.
“We’re seeing over 100 new cases per day,” Lindley said, adding that Vail Health is testing everyone who asks. Different numbers are coming from Vail Health and the Eagle County website, which Lindley attributed to the county website counting only local residents and not visitors.
And, Lindley added, new cases may be under-reported due to people who are taking home tests and not reporting the results.
“We’ve never seen cases like we’re seeing now, we’ve never seen percent positivity like we’re seeing now,” he said. “We’re seeing a doubling of cases every single two days that has been consistent for the past eight days. That is still an under-representation of what’s really going on because we don’t know about those take home tests.”
As cases increase rapidly, local officials are taking action.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson said that town is looking at ways to move as many people as possible to remote work. Those who can’t work remotely have been put into small groups, and can only interact within those groups.
Vail Health has implemented a mask policy at all locations for all employees, Lindley said, adding that if someone is worried about going into a public space, put on a mask.
But, Lindley added, we’re all going to have to learn to live with the virus, particularly when it comes to behavioral health, noting that mental health impacts have outweighed the physical effects of the virus in Eagle County. To make his point, Lindley said Vail Health Hospital has had more patients taking up beds on mental health holds than it has had for COVID patients over the course of the pandemic.
“We’ve been saying that COVID is here to stay,” Lindley said. “We’ve been living with it for two years.”
While transmission has accelerated, COVID “is still the same disease,” even in its variants. And treatment has improved, Lindley added.
As the virus evolves, Lindley said he hopes the conversation about the disease can transition to how we successfully live through it.
But some of the rules of engagement with the virus aren’t changing.
Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon said if someone shows symptoms, stay home from work and go get tested. Testing sites can be found at EagleCountyCovid.org.
What we need to do
At this point, though, Harmon said people need to understand what they need to do regarding testing and exposure.
“Public health orders only go so far,” Harmon said.
Living with the virus and its spread means people need to take responsibility for their own health and social lives. Harmon urged people to keep indoor gatherings small, and to gather outside if possible.
Lindley said the best way to maintain physical and mental health is to eat right, get plenty of sleep, get outside, and connect with love ones. Also, laughter is important.
“The one thing we can all do is get healthier,” Lindley said. “We’re already a very healthy valley — let’s be the healthiest.”
Given the speed of transmission, Lindley said that by Jan. 1, the virus will have hit the majority of the community. That means the current upward swing of new cases should start heading down soon.
Lindley said the next three or four weeks will be among the most challenging of the pandemic, and wants the community to be aware.
“I think we continue to miss this message,” he said. “You know, we go to masks, which we want people to mask. We go to vaccines, and we want people to mass vaccine. We go to social distancing. Those are all great things to slow the spread of it. But what I’m telling you here today, everybody in our community is going to be exposed to omicron. Knowing that, why not get healthy? Take your health really seriously. Talk to your doctor. Get on a nutrition program. If you need to get on an exercise program, get on an exercise program. Talk to your behavioral health provider. You know, all those things that you know fundamentally are good for you. This winter, let’s all do that together. As a community, let’s support each other and do it. Let’s encourage it, and let’s certainly not do anything that limits that healthy lifestyle.”
While the current surge is seeing more cases than ever, Lindley said COVID is something we’ll have to contend with for years to come.
“We’ve never considered the response to be over,” he said.
Lastly, he said, the most important thing you can do outside of prioritizing your personal health is to thank a health care worker.
“We want to recognize their hard work, their sacrifice,” he said. “We want to thank them for what they’re doing. We know the next three weeks, four weeks, for our health care providers are going to be some of the most challenging times for their career. And we just want to make sure the entire community knows their sacrifice and their their love for this community. And so love a health care worker. Right now, more than anything, love a health care worker.”