Pandemic year

The San Miguel County COVID-19 dashboard as of press time Jan. 7. (Courtesy photo)

March of this newly-hatched year will mark two years since thee COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. Tiny San Miguel County was not spared, especially in recent weeks as the omicron variant, hot on the heels of the delta variant, has rocketed positive cases in the hundreds. Not even pre-vaccine were case numbers so astronomically high. But, as county public health director, Grace Franklin noted in a recent year-end review, there are “a great many accomplishments to celebrate.”

Notably, the county had one of the highest vaccination rates in the state with 84 percent of eligible residents being fully vaccinated. The rollout began a little over a year ago with healthcare and the most vulnerable the first to receive the first of two shots of mostly the Moderna vaccine. The willingness of most county citizens to get vaccinated, Franklin noted in her letter to the public, allowed a sense of normalcy to return.

“In the following months, as our loved ones became fully protected, we were unburdened by COVID for a short while,” she wrote. “Enjoying festivals and rodeos, once again inviting friends and family into our homes, protecting our children, and feeling a sense of normalcy.”

It is a fact, though, that opportunistic viruses such as the coronavirus, will mutate, and mutate it did. The delta variant made itself known, hospitalizing mostly the unvaccinated, and proving devious even to the vaccinated. Though vaccinated people were largely spared hospital stays, a strained, regional healthcare infrastructure nearly buckled under the influx of COVID patients, and threatened the availability of hospital beds for those with catastrophic injuries or illnesses other than COVID. The county experienced its first deaths from COVID and saw some residents hospitalized for weeks. And now, the omicron variant, exceedingly easy to transmit from one to another, further tests hospital capacity.

“We have witnessed some trying hospital stays and suffered the loss of several beloved members of our community due to COVID-related complications,” Franklin said. “Omicron has brought about a new challenge with extremely high transmission sending our rates soaring to all-time highs.”

Franklin said that with antiviral treatments on the horizon, there is reason for hope. The new treatments will augment the current monoclonal antibody treatments and a vigorous campaign to get even more people vaccinated and/or boosted. And, the recent announcement from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that eligibility for booster shots has been expanded, adds another weapon in the fight against coronavirus.

Last week, the FDA announced expanded eligibility for Pfizer boosters and shortened the timing of Pfizer’s booster doses from six months to five months. Children ages 12 to 15 are now authorized to receive a booster dose five months after their second dose in their initial series.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory panel met last week to determine whether booster shots should be recommended for children ages 12 to 15. Additionally, the CDC recommended that immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11 are now authorized to receive a three-dose series of Pfizer, including an extra dose in their initial Pfizer series 28 days after their second shot.

According to a news release from the county, these changes in booster eligibility address the issue of waning immunity over time from an initial vaccine series. Meanwhile, a booster dose is proven to reboot the body’s immune response, resulting in increased protection against both the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19.

What the expanded eligibility guidelines mean is that millions of vaccine recipients can get their boosters right away. A booster COVID-19 vaccine is now recommended for anyone who meets the following eligibility: Moderna recipients who received their second dose at least six months ago and are 18 years of age or older; Pfizer recipients who received their second dose at least five months ago and are 12 years of age or older; Pfizer recipients who are 5 years of age and older who are immunocompromised and received their second dose at least 28 days ago; Johnson and Johnson recipients who received their initial dose at least two months ago and are 18 years of age or older.

Getting a booster shot has shown to be effective in reducing the severity of an infection.

“While we continue to learn about omicron as it rapidly spreads throughout the world, one thing is abundantly clear: vaccines and boosters are limiting the severity of symptoms due to COVID infection,” Franklin said. “If you are now eligible for a booster, take advantage of one of the many clinics in the area this week and next to further protect yourself from the rapidly spreading omicron variant.”

The purpose for this mobilization of scientific study and resources, Franklin said, is to not only protect the population, but to keep children in school and the economy humming. And, she allowed that the constant flood of information can be confusing at times.

“While guidance and recommendations may sometimes seem confusing or contradictory, we remind ourselves that the virus is constantly changing and challenging what we know,” she said. “We are still learning about COVID, preventative measures, and how we can live a robust life while coexisting with COVID.”

In another move aimed at helping keep business staffing sufficient to stay open, the CDC recently shortened the length of time those receiving a positive test must remain in isolation. An isolation period of nearly two weeks is now just five days, with those is isolation permitted to go back to work as long as there are no longer any symptoms and that mask use is adhered to. As local epidemiologist and public health advisory panel member, Dr. Jeffrey Kocher said at a recent Board of County Commissioners meeting, that policy shift is intended to prevent economic and societal breakdown.

“The change in the isolation and quarantine rules that the CDC announced the other day, there's absolutely zero new science behind that change. Absolutely zero,” Kocher said at the Dec. 29 public health update. “And in the media, people were quick to try and make it appear that that was the case. But Dr. (Anthony) Fauci has cleared that up. This is purely a policy decision. It was a decision made not based on any change in the science but the simple fact that so many people are getting COVID at this point, they forced the quarantine rules, which they thought were appropriate before there would be a complete breakdown in civil functioning. This is purely a policy decision to keep society functioning. And I have to point out that we've kind of entered a new territory in that regard when the government is altering their quarantine rules, not based on a change in the science but based on the reality on the ground that so many people are sick, that things won't function if they have to be quarantined for 10 days.”

In what was termed an “unprecedented spike in new cases,” public health has confirmed 249 new positive cases of COVID-19 from test results received from Dec. 31 through Jan. 6. Caseload data is still being collected including information surrounding residency and vaccination status. As of Thursay, there are 343 active local cases, all actively contagious cases are directed to isolate at the onset of symptoms or receipt of a positive COVID test result. There have been 2,206 total COVID cases among residents including one new hospitalization and seven COVID-related deaths.

Franklin ended her year-end wrap on a positive note and recited the now-well-known guidelines.

“We have a bright year ahead of us because of each and every one of you,” she said. “Please stay safe. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Stay home when you are sick. Wear a mask. If we continue to heed the preventative measures that are working, we will get through this.”

For complete information on testing, vaccination clinics and more, visit sanmiguelcountyco.gov.