Turning a corner or just catching our breath?

Local COVID numbers in decline, but transmission control is down,vaccination is spotty at best, and a new mutant is a threat

by Mark Craddock
HUERFANO/LAS ANIMAS — For the third week in a row, all COVID-19 tests performed at the Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center have come back negative, both among staff and residents of the Veterans Community Living Center — the site of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak late last year.

Trinidad Correctional Facility remains on Phase III protocols and is still considered an active outbreak site, but total active cases have plummeted to 19 as of Jan. 26.

Over the past week, Las Animas County logged 21 new cases, and Huerfano County saw only four. That puts the total for Las Animas County at 917, with 67 active cases and 11 deaths. Huerfano County has seen 299 cases, with seven active cases and 18 deaths.

All indications are that the south central region of the state has turned a corner after a brutal autumn, and data from the Colorado School of Public Health largely bears this out.

But the modeling data also says that one in 115 Coloradans remain infectious, approximately the same as the April, 2020, peak in cases — and individual transmission-control measures like mask wearing and social distancing has dropped from 82% to 78% in the past two weeks.

In the past, a drop in transmission control has led to a subsequent increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
And from the halls of the state capitol to the exam rooms in rural health clinics, the daily drumbeat grows — “When will we receive more vaccines? When can we put an end to this pandemic once and for all?”

The Latest Modeling

According to a Jan. 19 report from the Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Group, COVID-19 hospitalizations and estimated new infections are decreasing in most of the state, but flattening or increasing in five of 11 geographic subdivisions, especially in the East-Central, Metro, Northwest, San Luis Valley and Southwest regions.
The modeling group is a consortium of academics and public-health experts charged with keeping track of statewide trends in the pandemic.

The estimated effective reproduction number varies significantly by region, the report says, indicating steep decline (as low as 0.5) in some areas and increasing infection (as high as 1.2) in others.

The reproductive rate number indicates how many people an infected individual is likely to infect. A number above one indicates a growth in infections. A number below one indicates dropping infection rates.
The South-Central region, which includes Huerfano and Las Animas Counties, has an effective reproduction rate of 0.7, and it is declining.

Declining transmission-control efforts — and a new COVID strain which is more easily transmitted — continue to alarm the experts.

The report says “If the B.1.1.7 variant spreads as rapidly in Colorado as in the United Kingdom, high levels of transmission control and/or vaccination will be critical to avoiding another large surge in hospital demand.”

A Desperate Call for More Vaccine

Vaccination against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 continues in fits and starts, as the new administration of President Joe Biden contends with a nationwide strategy he has called “nearly nonexistent” and state governments are left to do the best they can with the doses they receive.

On Monday, Jan. 25, Colorado Governor Jared Polis joined his counterparts in renewing calls for more vaccines.
“Vaccines in Colorado are not sitting in a warehouse or on a shelf and we need more vaccines immediately to protect our most vulnerable residents… and ultimately to end this horrible pandemic,” Polis said. “I continue to urge our federal partners and the new Biden administration in Washington to ramp up vaccine distribution right away.”

“Colorado is ready to immediately use three to four times as many vaccines as we are currently getting each week right away,” he said. “The sooner Colorado gets more vaccines, the quicker we can get them into arms, and the faster we can help our small businesses and economy build back stronger. We’re ready and welcome renewed federal assistance to get the job done.”
Colorado has received a total of 376,920 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as of January 24, according to the Colorado Department of Public health and Environment. Of that, 147,420 were Pfizer first doses and 229,500 were Moderna first doses. The state has also received 217,520 second doses, of which 88,920 were Pfizer and 128,600 were Moderna. Colorado expects 42,120 first doses and 16,380 second doses from Pfizer next week. Additionally, the state expects 38,170 first doses and 33,200 second doses from Moderna next week.

As of 9 a.m. Monday, Colorado had administered 458,441 of the vaccine: 375,782 first doses and 82,659 second doses.
The nation remains in a foot race against a virus that is mutating.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom but has recently been identified in Colorado, does not seem to be any more deadly, but it spreads more easily, increasing the motivation to quickly vaccinate a broad swath of citizens to contain it. A mutant virus dubbed E484K has emerged out of South Africa and has spread to at least 12 other countries.

Many scientists fear it may be less susceptible to the current vaccines. Moderna, one of two companies currently producing SARS-CoV-2 vaccine under an FDA emergency order, announced last week that it has already begun work on a “booster” vaccine which it hopes to roll out this fall to address the new mutant strain.