Call it coronavirus whiplash. You might be forgiven for feeling confused — even torqued — by the headlines coming out of Washington this week.
Monday brought news that scientists believe ‘herd immunity’ is impossible to achieve in the U.S.
Daily vaccine rates “are slipping, and there is widespread consensus among scientists and experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever,” the New York Times reported.
Two days later, the Centers for Disease Control weighed in with a rejoinder: a “strikingly optimistic paper,” in the words of the Washington Post, that the virus “could be driven to low levels and at least temporarily throttled in the United States by July” if people just get vaccinated and keep staying safe.
Get a jab, and keep washing your hands.
Or, throw your hands up in despair and go grab a drink (because at this point you really need one) with your friends.
The good news/bad news back-and-forth continued right up to the end of this week, and even closer to home: on Friday, San Miguel County announced that it would move to Level Green “on the locally adopted COVID dial,” eliminating most capacity restrictions “as long as six feet of space can be maintained between local groups.”
“Current data supports the move to Level Green with our low incidence, positivity and hospitalization rates along with the occurrence of vaccine uptake throughout the county,” Public Health Director Grace Franklin said in a news release. “As we gear up for the summer season, our thought is that continued diligence and vaccination rates will keep our regional disease burden low.”
Further up the road on the Western Slope, the news was different: in Montrose County, there has been a 55 percent increase in virus cases (and a 101 percent increase in hospitalizations) over the 14-day period ending Thursday.
And on Friday, Mesa County — where the two-week case-count neared 500 — announced Covid-19 variant B.1.617.2, first identified in India, had been detected in five local women from different households, “none of whom had traveled recently” nor, apparently, had any contract with each other. Because “Those were five randomly selected positive cases, then we can bet there are quite a few more,” Mesa County Public Health Executive Director Jeff Kuhr told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “What’s also interesting is that these are the first five that have been detected in the state of Colorado.”
Call it interesting — and also disturbing.
“I do think the messaging can be confusing, and be saying different things that are totally accurate,” professor of medicine and infectious disease expert Michelle Barron, M.D., said. As the senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth, it’s Dr. Barron’s job to cut through the noise — to keep her patients and her own family safe, and to help make sense of the pandemic for reporters. Her suggestion for navigating the virus safely: “Use your judgement, keep following the rules and get a vaccine.”
“There are two ways to think about this,” Barron said. “There is global immunity, which we want the world to have, and community level immunity, in our state, counties, and country. We’ve made some huge strides in Colorado, and some counties have done a magnificent job of getting people immunized.”
“Getting the vaccine is great,” Barron said. “It’s long-lasting protection, and keeps you out of the hospital.”
Those who have not been vaccinated by this point “are at higher risk, because the variants that are out there are more contagious” than the original version of Covid-19. “That’s the biggest thing you want to be thinking about: don’t put getting vaccinated off any longer, because it takes two weeks to develop full protection,” Barron said.
For those who are vaccinated, how to live comes down to individual choices: how much risk you are comfortable taking?
“Maybe if I’m immune-compromised, and don’t have complete protection — but I’ve nevertheless had a vaccine — I will still gather with fully vaccinated friends outdoors,” Barron said. “Or, I may consider eating indoors, if I know the restaurant is spacing tables properly, or takes reservations, and isn’t overcrowded. So I have some assurance that when I walk in, I won’t be seated two feet away from someone I don’t know.”
Barron emphasized that her own choices, when it comes to navigating indoor and outdoor events these days “are maybe a little hyper-paranoid compared to other people. I still want to be careful. The last thing I want to do is end up sick, potentially endangering my family or my patients.” On the other hand, each one of us should be making our own choices carefully, she added: “You need to look at yourself, and your household and your family, and decide, which activities are worth it? Skiing, and mountain biking, all these things have risks, right? And so we employ safety measures: in your car, for example, you have seatbelts, air bags and speed limits.”
One safety measure is to spend time outdoors, “where you don’t have to wear a mask as long as you’re with those you know. You can still be safe, still enjoy spring and summer in Colorado, which for a lot of us is the best time. I like skiing, but I love summer in the San Juans in particular,” Barron said.
In addition to masking up when necessary, and spending time outside as much as possible, staying flexible is key.
“It’s a good idea to plan for activities that you would like to participate in, and figure out how to still do them. With Covid,” as virus rates rise, “things change day by day,” Barron said. “Sometimes events get postponed; it’s great that the virus is being considered.”
Assessing risks moment to moment (or event by event) may become the new normal, she added.
“It’s going to be true until this pandemic ends, or until the next one comes, and I don’t say that lightly. But at some point, we could have this again,” she said. “My cousin’s nine-year-old daughter was very worried about going back to school. I asked her, ‘Why is it scary?’ She said, ‘Because I can’t control what other people do.’ I said, ‘Sweetheart, that’s the way the world works. You can wear your mask; you can step back if somebody gets too close.’ You have a level of control over what you do, and where you go. We do have choice.”
In Mesa County, public health director Kuhr emphasized that “although there are new variants in the community, MCPH does know” that all three available vaccines are effective against them. The county’s vaccination rate is reportedly 36 percent. He hopes those who are reluctant ultimately choose a vaccine.
“It’s very easy for people to get in to get vaccinated,” Kuhr said. “So if people are thinking about it, now is the time.”