On one hand, festivals have resumed and concert venues have opened their doors. On the other, ticket-holders must show proof of vaccination to attend. On one hand, vaccination rates in San Miguel County are robust at 74 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. On the other, the county reported its first COVID-19 death this week, a woman in her late 70s who was admitted to St. Mary’s in Grand Junction June 6 with COVID-related health concerns.
According to a news release from the county, she was unvaccinated and involved in an outbreak associated with a gathering.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a valued member of our community,” said county public health director Grace Franklin. “With much sorrow, we are experiencing our first tragedy of the pandemic and our small, intimate community is jolted. Our sincere condolences go out to those close to this resident.”
The grim takeaway is that the pandemic still lurks, as evidenced not only by the death of the woman (her name was not publicly released as of press time Wednesday afternoon), but by the positive case numbers being reported weekly. From May 27 through June 13, 29 new cases were logged. Of those 29 cases, 21 are residents, bringing the total number of cases to 907 with eight active, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Even as mask ordinances have been dropped from local laws — save for the federal mandate requiring them on public transportation such as the gondola and local bus services — the specter of the pandemic, which claimed more than 600,000 lives in the United States, remains. Given the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, getting vaccinated is the clearest route to eradicating the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that mRNA vaccines work as well in the real world as they have in clinical trials.
“Vaccine effectiveness studies provide a growing body of evidence that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines offer similar protection in real-world conditions as they have in clinical trial settings, reducing the risk of COVID-19, including severe illness, among people who are fully vaccinated by 90 percent or more,” according to info on the CDC website. “Most vaccine effectiveness data now available are related to mRNA vaccines. In addition to providing protection against COVID-19, there is increasing evidence that COVID-19 vaccines also provide protection against COVID-19 infections without symptoms (asymptomatic infections). COVID-19 vaccination can reduce the spread of disease overall, helping protect people around you.”
Franklin said that getting the word out to those on the fence is a work in progress, and one that focuses on those with so-called “vaccine hesitancy.”
“Vaccine hesitancy is normal and exists with any vaccination,” she said. “Our job (in public health) is not to convince the hard no’s.”
Through outreach and education, public health departments in the county and elsewhere provide the best information to those with questions and concerns. Still, she said, “there’s a lot of work to do.”
Franklin said that even with outreach from public health departments, patients tend to trust their own medical providers.
“Vaccine information is best received from medical providers,” she said. “If they hear it from their own doctor, those on the fence tend to say ‘yes.’”
Both Uncompahgre Medical Clinic in Norwood and Telluride Regional Medical Center have stocks of the “one and done” Johnson & Johnson vaccine, making the decision to be vaccinated more streamlined than signing up for one of the two-dose vaccines made by Moderna or Pfizer.
Despite the county’s respectable vaccination rate, Franklin said it tends to skew toward the more populated east end. Is it good enough?
“As a county, no. Town of Telluride, yes,” she said. “It leans pretty heavy on the east end.”
Case rates are as a result of unvaccinated populations, both here and elsewhere.
“We’re seeing the repercussions of large pockets of unvaccinated people,” Franklin said.
New variants, common with any virus, are “cause for concern.” The Delta variant, which is currently troubling in Mesa County, is proving to have more severe outcomes and is highly transmissible.
Franklin and other health care professionals acknowledge that there is “no such thing as zero risk,” among vaccinated people. But, she added, that even if infected, “the mild to moderate outcomes are encouraging.” In a nutshell, the vaccines work well. That, and the now-familiar edicts of mask-wearing and social distancing, proved effective in limiting disease transmission.
“The tools we have work pretty darned great,” she said.
Franklin encourages those undecided to talk to those they trust, such as a doctor or a pharmacist, and cautions that any data gathered must come from a reputable source.
“There’s a lot of unreliable information out there,” she said.
For vaccinated people testing the waters of indoor gatherings, be it concerts or restaurants, look for well-ventilated spaces.
According to the World Health Organization, increasing ventilation systems indoors is one of the most effective ways to reduce transmission of COVID and other respiratory infections. Improving ventilation can be as simple as introducing outdoor air or HEPA systems to increasing airflow through HVAC systems.
“Looking towards last summer, it’s clear that outdoor activities are lower risk than indoor activities,” Franklin said. “Our communities are well poised to socialize outside or increase indoor airflow to further protect those who cannot be vaccinated at this time and remain vulnerable to COVID-19. When thinking about your personal risk, consider opting for well ventilated activities like a hike, bike ride or meal outdoors.”
And, public health continues to stress the importance of staying home when sick, getting tested and donning a mask in crowded places.
For coronavirus vaccine information, visit bit.ly/smcvaccineinfo.