Delta variant rises to dominance in La Plata, Archuleta counties

People who are unvaccinated experiencing surge of cases
Covid family

Vanessa Taylor, 47, said she is still monitoring her recovery from COVID-19 six weeks after her original diagnosis. She caught the virus from her daughter, Rhyse, 9. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The headaches, coughing and body aches started in late June for Durango resident Vanessa Taylor. When she went to the doctor, she was shocked to learn she had COVID-19, considering she had been fully vaccinated by the end of March.

“My symptoms were pretty overwhelming for the first 11 days,” Taylor said. “I referred to it as ‘horizontal misery.’ I didn’t leave my bed.”

Taylor was infected with the delta variant of the novel coronavirus – the fast-spreading variant prompting communities nationwide to, once again, evaluate how to fight the virus in daily life.

Delta has quickly become the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States. Reports of outbreaks have been cropping up. Masking recommendations are on the rise, adding fuel to the ongoing mask debate. The COVID-19 vaccines are the strongest tools available to control the virus, health professionals say, but many Americans remain hesitant or unwilling to get a dose.

“People need to realize we’re not out of the woods yet, and things can get worse again before they get better,” said Christopher Hudson, a doctor and chief medical officer at Mercy Regional Medical Center. “We just really need people to wear their masks, follow those (public health) guidelines and get vaccinated.”

La Plata County reported 4,372 cases as of Friday, according to San Juan Basin Public Health. Archuleta County reported 1,162 cases as of Friday. Both showed a slight increase in case numbers compared with a lull in late spring.

Delta has been linked to an outbreak at the Pagosa Springs Walmart, in which 16 people got COVID-19, and at Nissan of Durango, which led to 10 cases and two deaths. The Office of Emergency Management posted a warning about an outbreak in San Juan County, Colorado, on Thursday.

In response to its rise, SJBPH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention again recommended masks, regardless of vaccination status, in indoor public areas. The 6th Judicial District, based in Durango, just announced its own mask requirements for staff members and visitors in courthouses.

CDPHE was still evaluating its recommendation for vaccinated people this week, said Rachel Herlihy, a doctor and state epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

SJBPH also announced this week it received nearly $1 million in grant money to increase vaccine access and education.

For some community members, the rise of delta means the end of the sense of normalcy that came with COVID-19 vaccines and early summer months. Some were never able to relax because of chronic health conditions, while others continued to question the necessity of public health restrictions.

Several La Plata County residents, who shared their experiences of the pandemic, came to the same conclusion: Vaccines are the best weapon against the pandemic and the best opportunity to return to a sense of “normal.”

Taylor caught the coronavirus from her 9-year-old daughter, Rhyse, who is too young to be vaccinated. At 47, her fight with delta felt like pneumonia, and she’s still monitoring her recovery six weeks after her original diagnosis. But she never landed in the hospital.

“My main thing is, I can’t imagine what would have happened without the antibodies that I did have from the vaccine,” she said.

What we know about delta

All viruses naturally mutate over time, which gives rise to variants. Delta, first detected in India, is one of four variants of concern identified by the CDC. It is the dominant variant in La Plata County, Colorado and the United States.

Two characteristics of delta are most concerning: One, it is twice as contagious as past variants, and two, early research suggests it could cause more severe cases of COVID-19, Herlihy said.

“Because of that, individuals who are not fully vaccinated are really at greater risk than ever in the pandemic of getting COVID-19 and then potentially having a severe outcome from COVID-19,” she said.

But delta also comes with a twist: It is so contagious that vaccinated people can still spread it. Health professionals are also spotting more so-called “breakthrough” cases, when a vaccinated person, like Taylor, shows symptoms of the disease.

In La Plata and Archuleta counties, about 5% of the cases from January through July, or 119 out of 2,130, were breakthrough cases, according to San Juan Basin Public Health.

And about 6% of hospitalized people were fully vaccinated, most of whom have existing health conditions, said Brian Devine, SJBPH deputy incident commander for COVID-19 response.

“The virus evolves over time. When it finds an evolution or mutation that helps it spread or survive, that’s going to become widespread,” Devine said. “It’s totally appropriate for the public to be on the lookout for changes in how the virus behaves so we can adjust how we fight against it in our own lives.”

Vaccines continue to provide strong protection against severe cases of COVID-19, hospitalization and death, according to health professionals. The vast majority of people who get sick and end up in the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“There are human coronaviruses that cause the common cold. It’s highly likely that this particular coronavirus will get to that point sometime in the future – once it’s very widespread and everyone has been exposed to it and vaccinated,” Devine said.

Three pandemic realities

The pandemic experience in 2021 shifts dramatically depending on whether a person has had a shot in the arm.

For unvaccinated residents in La Plata and Archuleta counties, the spread of COVID-19 is as rampant as it was in the winter of 2020.

That’s when the counties saw their largest surge of cases around Thanksgiving, according to SJBPH.

But vaccinated people are much less likely to catch the virus.

Statewide, their case rate, measured as a seven-day average, is three cases per 100,000 people. The unvaccinated population has a case rate of 17 cases per 100,000 – more than five times higher.

These people are living in conditions similar to mid-October 2020, when case numbers were ramping up, Herlihy said.

Then there are the people who have been vaccinated, but have existing health conditions that compromise their immune systems.

Samantha Larkin Huggins, a Durango resident with multiple sclerosis, has to live life like she was never vaccinated – she does not have any antibodies to fight the virus.

Julie Korb, a professor at Fort Lewis College, said it is the same for her daughter, Amara Kirk, 14, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 12.

“They basically say get vaxxed, act like you’re not,” Korb said.

For her daughter, the coronavirus poses a daily risk. Korb said wearing masks and getting vaccinated was about compassion for people who can’t defend themselves against the virus, no matter what they do.

“The main thing is to realize that your choices have an effect on other people,” she said. “To take responsibility, be kind and think about our community.”

Valerie McKinnis, a hospitalist at Mercy, said her 75-year-old father was diagnosed with COVID-19 after being vaccinated in February, another breakthrough case.

“It’s been terrifying,” she said. “I’ve been taking care of patients with COVID for a long time, and that’s deeply affected me as a physician and a human being. But it’s a different thing when it’s someone you love.”

Her father, Jerry Bauman of Kansas, has rheumatoid arthritis. He ended up in the hospital twice while fighting the virus.

“He would not have survived had he not had the vaccine. If he had not had some partial immune response, he would not have come home from the hospital,” she said. “His recovery, even though he had to be hospitalized … has been remarkable.”

At work, she said her patients are mostly unvaccinated people but some are similar to her dad, vaccinated but with other health conditions.

“Until we get to a level of viral suppression, the vaccine will continue to mutate. And then it gets really scary,” she said. “Because then we have to develop a vaccine to target another part of the virus, with all that entails.”

Post courtesy of the Durango Herald

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