County joins globe with fast spreading Omicron virus

No discussion about shutdowns

[  by Mark Reaman  ]

You could label the current increase in the number of local COVID cases as blowing up, spreading like wildfire or any number of other descriptions, but the fact is Gunnison County is experiencing what so many other areas around the globe have seen — a fast and dramatic increase in the growth of coronavirus cases based primarily on the highly infectious Omicron variant.

From the first week of December to the first week of January, confirmed cases among residents have grown 13-fold. This week’s report from Gunnison County shows 442 positive results from COVID PCR tests recorded between January 2 and January 8. Across all known testing sources, 924 tests were conducted over the same time frame yielding a positivity rate of 44 percent for confirmed cases.

Schools, CBMR, the health care providers, bars, restaurants and pretty much every business in the area are feeling impacts of the spread through staff shortages. 

According to Gunnison County public information officer Loren Ahonen, this area is following a trend seen in other mountain resort communities. “The growth in cases in our community is stark, but is not unprecedented given what we have seen in similar communities,” he said. “Cases began rising in other mountain counties (Eagle, Pitkin, Summit and San Miguel) about 10-14 days before our spike. Our case growth is on a similar trajectory to these communities, but just a bit later.”

According to Ahonen, the surge in cases is invariably related to the transmissibility of the Omicron variant but the impact of holiday visitors is not so clear. “It’s difficult to identify to what degree visitation plays a role,” he explained. “While we have had visitors test positive in our community over the holiday season, many of our community members also travelled out of the community during the holidays. At this point in time, a vast majority of positive tests in our community are amongst residents. 

“Determining the future impact of holiday visitation over big ski weekends like Martin Luther King Day is challenging,” he continued, “…particularly with how widespread the virus currently is within the community. It’s far too early to speculate about the Spring Break season, but globally the Omicron spike seen in other countries appears to be relatively short in duration, something like six weeks.”

Hospital staff feeling it

Gunnison Valley Health communications director Joelle Ashley said hospital admissions because of COVID have not increased significantly but like so many other places, staffing is becoming an issue. “At the moment we are not seeing high numbers of hospitalizations or transfers related to COVID. Our most recent data shows that there were three COVID-related admissions over the weekend and one COVID-related transfer that occurred last week,” she said. “Of course, we are still seeing people requiring hospitalization for a variety of reasons and we continue to support our community with transfers as needed.

“For us, the impact that this huge Omicron surge is having is related to staffing,” Ashley continued. “Like everyone, we are seeing large numbers of daily staff call-offs, which is creating operational challenges. We are managing and are maintaining our typical day-to-day operations, but there is definitely a risk as we continue to see the community positivity rate rise.” 

GVH on Tuesday cancelled all its January events including the scheduled blood draws for Crested Butte and Gunnison. The hope is to reschedule them later in the year.

Ahonen noted that there have been individuals using the Emergency Room as a primary means of testing, which he said was “a challenge and we ask our citizens to seek testing through the established testing site and other resources. The ER is primarily for medical emergencies.”

Another factor in the midwinter COVID outbreak is that the typical winter crud is also going around. “Our primary care providers have indicated seeing an increase in Influenza A cases and other respiratory illnesses,” Ahonen said. “There are members of the community experiencing other respiratory illness.”

School impacts

Local schools are feeling the impact of the crud and the rapidly spreading Omicron COVID variant. In the Gunnison Watershed School District, “the reality of Omicron these last six days since we’ve returned from break has taken its toll,” said GWSD superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols during the January 10 school board meeting. “Our student attendance is feeling the hit of COVID and at the same time so is our staff.”

As of Tuesday, the district reported 107 positive cases for students and staff over the last seven days. “Considering we hit the mask mandate button three weeks into the school year when we were in the 20s, that is just wild,” said Nichols. 

COVID is also taking its toll on an already short-staffed workforce within the school district. As of Monday, approximately 28 staff members were out due to COVID, with an additional 10 other staff members who were out caretaking for sick family members, said Nichols. 

At Crested Butte Community School, they are allowing one district administrator with teaching experience to be available each day to substitute teach. Nichols noted that because finding coverage is a little easier in Gunnison than in Crested Butte, the Gunnison administrators are also on standby should CBCS need more support. 

“Our schools are open for in-person learning and we remain committed to that with as robust attendance from our kids that we can get,” said Nichols. “We have been able to keep our doors open despite the shortage that COVID is bringing to our staff. We are exploring makeup work options for students, so families aren’t overwhelmed with that and our teachers aren’t overwhelmed.” 

The district’s mask mandate is still in place, along with the rest of the risk reduction tools that have been implemented all school year. Nichols noted that the district is also working with the county to try to hold pediatric vaccine clinics again at the schools. 

Western Colorado University made the decision to start the new semester virtually so online learning will be taking place between January 10 and January 21. According to Western’s communications officer Chris Rourke, students are expected to return to the classrooms on January 24.

For that to happen, WCU is requiring students be fully vaccinated including with a booster shot by January 31. Western will be hosting an on-campus vaccination and booster clinic on January 14 starting at 5 o’clock in the Paul Wright Gymnasium parking lot. 

Gunnison County continues to record a pretty high vaccination rate. As of January 10, 81 percent of eligible residents, those five years old or older, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently more than 6,200 residents have gotten a booster dose.

Under the circumstances, Ahonen said there have been no discussions at the county level concerning government-mandated shutdowns to try and control the spread of the virus. 

The county’s weekly report made clear that with the high levels of transmission in the community, and staffing constraints across partner agencies and volunteers, Gunnison County will be pausing mass vaccination clinics until February 17. They continue to recommend that eligible citizens seek COVID-19 vaccination and resources are in place for vaccination to continue across the community. The CDPHE mobile unit will be in the Gunnison Valley January 14-16 and provides all available COVID-19 vaccinations including boosters for recently eligible kids 12 and older. More information can be found at the Gunnison County Vaccine Resource web page. Testing, vaccinations and booster shots are available in Crested Butte at local health care provider offices.

The county reminded people that for those who do contract COVID-19, the new CDC guidance allows for individuals to leave isolation after five days if symptoms are resolving. Symptom resolution means that you no longer have symptoms — if you have been experiencing fever, you must be fever free for 24 hours and your other symptoms should be improved. Those leaving isolation after five days must wear a mask in public for an additional five days.

“At this time, we strongly encourage our residents to be risk averse,” Ahonen concluded. “Collectively limiting our exposure, wearing masks, getting tested and monitoring for illness can help us mitigate further spread in our community. Small decisions in our individual lives can help minimize risk and limit community spread.”

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