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El Paso County seeing highest COVID case surge among large Colorado counties as vaccinations lag

Fifty-five percent of eligible El Paso County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Fifty-five percent of eligible El Paso County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.(KKTV)
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 8:23 AM MDT|Updated: Jul. 27, 2021 at 12:35 PM MDT
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DENVER (KKTV) - Some states and municipalities across the country are implementing new requirements to curb the skyrocketing COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated.

Colorado is not following suit -- for now.

California and New York City both announced Monday that certain employees would be required to be vaccinated or else undergo weekly COVID testing, while Savannah, Georgia and St. Louis effected new indoor mask mandates. The VA, America’s largest health care provider, said going forward the vaccine will be mandatory for most medical personnel including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and others who work in departmental facilities or provide direct care to veterans.

11 News reporter Catherine Silver was told by the governor’s office that at this point, the state is focused on keeping the vaccine free and convenient for all, and that is the priority of its COVID response.

So far, Colorado is faring better than many states, avoiding the dramatic jump in cases and hospitalizations seen in some places. According to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker, while Colorado has seen its cases rise in the last two weeks, it was one of the smaller increases nationwide. The tracker shows 37 states and U.S. territories with a 14-day change of plus-100 percent or higher; Colorado’s two-week change was plus-30.

Gov. Jared Polis said last week that hospitalizations are well below capacity levels, and as long as that holds, he’s not intending to reimplement any COVID restrictions.

“I think I’ve made it clear from the start: The state nexus is making sure our hospital system is not overwhelmed. We have 298* Coloradans that are hospitalized due to COVID. And to be clear, that’s 298 too many. No one wishes more than me that it was zero. But, that is not a threat to hospital capacity. That is well within our normal operational capacity to serve people. Any Coloradan who gets a heart attack or stroke or appendicitis or COVID will get the top-notch quality of care and our hospital system can sustain this level of addressing those who suffer from COVID and other conditions. That was the crisis; it was very scary when the virus first reared. ... Our state avoided overwhelming hospital capacity but came very close, and that’s why Coloradans had to step up and really take those extraordinary measures that we did at that time.”

Hospitalizations continue to consist almost entirely of people not fully vaccinated. That’s true in Colorado and that’s true nationwide. Just under 96 percent of all hospitalized between January-June were unvaccinated, Polis said.

“It’s definitely a possibility [hospitals having a problem] where you have a place with a large number of people who have not been vaccinated, that are at a higher risk of contracting the Delta variant,” said Fadi Youkhana, an epidemiologist for El Paso County Public Health. “If you have a bunch of people who have not been vaccinated, all that means is that you have a bunch of people for the virus to spread through.”

El Paso County is a relative hotspot in Colorado, with the highest incident rate of the state’s largest counties.

“We’re seeing the positivity and incident [rates] go up. Positivity went over 5 percent, and our incidence is very close to going over 100 for the first time since early June,” Youkhana said.

Fifty-five percent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, putting El Paso in the bottom half of counties. To compare, Denver, Boulder, Douglas and Jefferson counties have more 70 percent of their eligible population vaccinated, and Arapahoe County is just under that at 69 percent.

“That translates to about 270,000 people that have either not been fully immunized, having chosen not to get vaccinated, or cannot get vaccinated,” Youkhana said of El Paso County’s numbers.

And about 270,000 that the Delta variant can burn through.

That’s the main message state and local health officials want to get through to the public: that until more people get vaccinated, the pandemic is not only not over but is at risk of blowing up again.

“As you know with this disease, it can sort of idle along, and then rapidly go back up. If you look across the United States of America, you’ll see that it’s moving up. It’s actually at that phase where it’s turning into what we would call a surge,” said El Paso County Public Health chief data scientific strategist Stephen Goodwin.

“... The wind is at our back now. We have the beautiful weather where we can leave doors and windows open, people are gathering outside rather than inside. We know in the fall due to the way this virus spreads, once we go inside the ventilation gets worse, etc. Now is the time to vaccinate. Now is the time to keep those numbers down.”

*Number on July 20. As of July 27, that number is 291.

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