The banner strung across Colorado Avenue reminds the downtown throngs that despite the newfound freedom of largely mask-less life, the COVID pandemic hasn’t reached the finish line. “We’re not out of the woods yet. Get vaccinated,” it reads, undulating in the breeze. It’s a message county public health officials felt important enough to make an appeal to Telluride’s Commission for Community Assistance, the Arts and Special Events (CCAASE), the body responsible for banner approvals, to hang the message as often as space in between previously approved banners would allow. The message has backing from numbers health officials are seeing globally and locally — COVID-19, particularly its natural variants, is tearing through unvaccinated populations.

While San Miguel County boasts a respectable vaccination rate of 77.6 percent overall, that number is bolstered by residents in the east end of the county who took advantage of county-run vaccine clinics, private practice physicians, regional health care facilities, or even out-of-county pharmacies, as soon as one’s eligibility was announced. Enticed by the desire to attend live music concerts, dine out, go to in-person events, or visit family after more than a year of hunkering down, vaccines, for many, represented a passport to higher mobility and a return to social interaction. For the vaccinated, there is proven protection against not only the original COVID strain, but also its handful of variants. For the vaccinated. Among those who, so far, have not been immunized, the numbers have seen significant increases. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control reported the 7-day moving average of daily new cases (26,306) increased 69.3 percent compared with the previous seven-day moving average (15,541). Hospitalizations have also increased and have done so consistently since June 25, according to CDC figures. Both statistics keep local public health officials banging the vaccination drum.

“Nationally, outbreaks are overwhelmingly amongst unvaccinated populations,” said county Public Health Director Grace Franklin. “Transmission of COVID-19 is preventable. The worst possible outcome — hospitalizations and deaths — due to the virus can be avoided through vaccination.”

On the Western Slope, where the population relies on just a few major hospitals serving not only residents, but also large numbers of visitors nearly year-round, admission rates are a source of concern.

“Our regional hospitals are seeing high rates of hospitalizations yet again amongst elderly, immune-compromised and unvaccinated patients. Vaccination is the most effective means to protect yourself and those at-risk of severe reactions from COVID-19," Franklin said.

Should area hospitals reach critical levels of COVID patients, local health departments could exercise the option of returning to stricter public health measures such as broader face mask requirements and limitations on indoor capacities, lodging numbers and other restrictions, strictures that cramp economic viability and social mobility. In public health care parlance, it’s called snapback.

“Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment may require counties whose hospitalizations threaten to exceed 85 percent of hospital system capacity to implement additional restrictions to mitigate disease transmission. Knowing the collaboration needed for regional resources, San Miguel County would consider adding additional restrictions if the County reaches Level Orange COVID metrics,” the county’s website reads.

In the county, Franklin reported that since April 15, there have been 74 cases, seven variant cases (two Alpha, five Delta), 11 breakthrough cases, and three known breakthrough Delta variant cases (breakthrough meaning vaccinated individuals tested positive for the coronavirus. Symptoms, if any, tend to be mild as the vaccine fights the disease.

Franklin cautioned that testing for variant cases takes time.

“It takes many weeks for us to receive data from the state surrounding variant cases so we are unsure about last week's numbers,” she said.

In other health news, West Nile, a mosquito-borne virus, has reared its head again this summer has it has every year in Colorado since 2002. West Nile was detected in routine seasonal testing in Weld County.

As of July 5, no human cases of the West Nile virus have been reported. During the summer of 2020, 35 cases of the virus in humans were detected leading to one death. Most people infected with the virus do not develop any symptoms. The risk of infection is highest for people who work outside or participate in outdoor activities, because of greater exposure to mosquitoes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around one in five people who have been infected with the virus develop West Nile fever. Symptoms can begin within two to 14 days from the day of the bite and include fever, headache, nausea, muscle aches, stiff neck and disorientation tremors.

Prevention of mosquito bites is the most effective way to avoid West Nile. Key preventative measures include draining standing water, dressing with ample clothing for the outdoors, staying indoors at dawn and dusk, and employing defenses like insect repellent.

To mosquito-proof you the home, work to avoid instances of standing water.

According to health officials, about one in 150 infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, illness. The virus can cause a serious brain infection such as meningitis or encephalitis, which can result in permanent brain damage or death. The elderly and those with underlying immunosuppressive health conditions are at increased risk of severe complications from infection. There is neither a vaccine to prevent nor medications to treat the virus in people.

If symptoms of West Nile virus arise, contact a primary care physician right away. Alternatively, San Miguel County Public Health is available for assistance by emailing publichealth@sanmiguelcountyco.gov.

For coronavirus vaccine information, visit: bit.ly/smcvaccineinfo.

For coronavirus testing information, visit: bit.ly/smccovidtesting

For up-to-date coronavirus information, visit: sanmiguelcountyco.gov/coronavirus.