Omicron variant likely to surge in Colorado’s mountain communities first, Polis says

jared polis covid-19 update dec. 21 2021.jpg
Posted at 4:44 PM, Dec 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-22 14:00:34-05

DENVER – Coloradans and tourists headed to the mountains this holiday season should exercise caution and take steps to protect themselves as the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to spread across the state, Governor Jared Polis said during a news conference Tuesday.

“Omicron is here in Colorado. We have community spread. It’s a higher level in many areas of the state that experience increased visitation and travel,” Polis said early Tuesday afternoon.

His remarks come hours after Elbert County Public Health officials said data modeling show Colorado’s mountain communities, including Eagle, Summit, Pitkin, Lake, Gunnison, Chaffee, La Plata, Archuleta, San Miguel, San Juan, Ouray, Clear Creek, Grand, Routt and Garfield counties, “may be among the first to experience challenges related to Omicron.”

Dwayne Smith, the director of Elbert County Public Health, said in a news release visitation from outside Colorado surged over the Thanksgiving break with people from Texas, Florida, California, New Mexico, and Kansas coming to celebrate the holidays. Visitation for the month of December is on pace to match last year's levels, he added.

Smith also pointed to data from Eagle County, which now shows a record-breaking acceleration in cases from over the weekend and a high percent positivity rate with a relatively high number of tests, which have raised concern that the omicron variant may be present in that county.

The number of visitors coming through Pitkin County is rising quickly though not as dramatically as in Eagle County, Smith said, and the county’s positivity rate has shifted upward, suggesting higher rates in the days to come. Summit County has also seen a slight increase in tourists and residents from other parts of the state but “the data does not yet suggest a major concern,” he wrote.

“There is good reason to be concerned and to prepare accordingly,” Smith said. “This means getting fully vaccinated, and making prudent decisions on holiday travel and gatherings.”

Asked if he would consider reinstating a mask mandate to curb the spread of omicron, especially in mountain communities were the virus could be spreading at a faster rate due to the presence of out-of-state visitors, Polis once again said he would leave the decision up to local public health officials and encouraged people to instead get vaccinated and get a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine if they hadn’t already done so.

“Masks help reduce transmission indoors around others,” Polis said. “Now the larger picture is, getting vaccinated has a bigger effect on protecting yourself.”

He pointed to state data, which shows you are 47 times less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 after getting three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health experts from Colorado and elsewhere, however, have said vaccines alone are not enough – especially now with omicron, which preliminary data shows is much more transmissible than previous variants of the novel coronavirus and more adept at infecting people who’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or who’ve recovered from prior infection.

As of early Tuesday afternoon, state data showed 1,030 people in Colorado were hospitalized for COVID-19, with the majority of those being unvaccinated.

Polis regretted that some people will not want to get vaccinated against COVID-19 despite data which shows the vaccine is effective against preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death.

"I knew that there would be a few Coloradans that didn't want to get vaccinated... but I didn't expect it would be 17% in the face of overwhelming data and science that shows the tremendous benefit that the vaccine has at the individual level and of course, your family and friends," Polis said.

To that group, he urged them to seek monoclonal antibody treatments, which prevents mild cases of COVID-19 from becoming severe, leading to hospitalizations. Polis said monoclonal antibody treatments were being diverted to places where the omicron variant will likely surge first, outcompeting delta. Anyone who is at risk of becoming severely ill due to COVID-19 is eligible for monoclonal antibody treatments, so long as they seek the treatment within ten days of developing symptoms and before requiring hospitalization.

The governor also touted the state’s many community vaccination and testing sites as the omicron variant is expected to become the dominant variant “in the coming weeks.” Some new sites that will be a combination of a testing/vaccination clinic and which will be opening soon include: Ball Arena, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Water World, Federal Heights, Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, the Boulder County Fairgrounds, and Timberline Church in Fort Collins

A full list of testing sites can be found here.

Additionally, Polis said he still has to look at President Joe Biden’s plan to distribute 500 million rapid at-home COVID-19 tests to decide whether he'll shut down the state's free at-home rapid testing program, which has delivered 1.3 million tests since it was first implemented.

“We look forward to helping with efforts that result in safer, healthier communities in the new year,” Polis said.

While the delta variant continues to be the dominant strain of the virus in Colorado, the latest data from the state’s COVID-19 website shows omicron now makes up nearly 10% of all cases since it was first detected in the state on Dec. 2.