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Variants Drive Up Colorado Covid-19 Cases While Vaccines Lower Ceiling

Colorado faces a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections driven by highly infectious variants and loosening restrictions.

DENVER (CN) --- For the first time in over a year, one can look across the Platte River in downtown Denver and watch the Twister II jolt across its wooden track at the Elitch Gardens theme park. Along with opening indoor dining and loosening mask restrictions, the racing thrill ride is a small symbol of progress in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amid businesses reopening, Covid-19 cases in Colorado steadily rose, before beginning to decline.   

“You're in competition between vaccination on the one hand and the spread of variants and the loosening of restrictions on the other hand,” said Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Generally, across the nation, we're sort of in a stalemate, the number of cases more or less have been plateaued for last couple of months.”

With 190 cases reported per 100,000 residents, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Colorado the third highest infection rate in the country, behind Michigan and Minnesota.

Though a third of the Colorado’s 6 million people are inoculated against the disease, the opening of businesses coincided with a rise in the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant that drove the state into a fourth wave of outbreaks.

The U.S.’s first known case of Covid-19 variant B.1.1.7 was confirmed in December in a nursing home in rural Simla, Colorado. By April, the state estimated the highly infectious strain was responsible for half its cases. In a Thursday press conference, the state health department announced the identification of variant B.1.617, first found in India, among five residents in Mesa County.

Additional variants of concern tracked by the state include P.1, first detected in Brazil, and B.1.351, first identified in South Africa.

Health officials say vaccination prevented cases from continuing to rise and is contributing to a slow decline. Over the last week, Denver's positivity rate fell from 5% to 3.6%.

“What's causing it to go down? I think it's vaccinations,” said Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health. “It's interesting, you see those vaccine curves go up, and then about two weeks later, you see transmission curves go down.”

Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment links lower rates of Covid spread with higher rates of vaccination. With nearly 65% of Boulder residents and 60% of Denverites vaccinated, the counties recorded lower rates of spread than El Paso County, where less than 45% have been vaccinated. The report linked a 10% increase in vaccination to an average decrease in 51 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people.

Models developed by the CDC project a nationwide decline in the disease in July.

"A sharp decline in cases was projected by July 2021, with a faster decline in the high-vaccination scenarios,” the report concluded. “High vaccination rates and compliance with public health prevention measures are essential to control the Covid-19 pandemic and to prevent surges in hospitalizations and deaths in the coming months.”

But Colorado is also seeing a decline in vaccinations, as those most motivated to become vaccinated have already done so. On May 5, the state distributed 26,737 vaccines compared to 53,437 people vaccinated the previous Wednesday.

“My sense in watching this over the last six months is that attitudes about Covid-19 vaccination have continued to improve,” Burman said. “There's more direct familiarity — I know people who have been vaccinated, so it's not just news reports, it's that personal experience.”

Rural counties across the state — and nation — must figure out how to reach people who lack transportation, the internet and interest.

“There's still a significant amount of suspicion about vaccines, the ingredients, the components of the vaccine. They're worried about long term side effects. Some people feel like if they don't have any pre-existing health conditions, they don’t need it and their choice won't affect others,” said Dwayne Smith, public health director of Elbert County.

In addition to having a highly vaccine-hesitant population, Elbert County has limited health care infrastructure. The rural county located between I-25 and the eastern plains does not have its own hospital. Since this past July, Smith said, the health department received only two applications to fill its vacant public health nurse position.

Elbert County ranks among the state’s lowest for vaccination with nearly a third of its 26,000 people having received at least one dose.

“We may never get to a vaccination figure that is your projected level of herd immunity, whether that's 80%, whether that's 85%,” Smith said. But he isn’t giving up. Elbert County is distributing vaccines with help from the Tri-County Health Department — which covers a quarter of the state’s population — and the Elizabeth Fire Rescue.

“This is a vaccine-preventable disease in the same fashion that is whooping cough or mumps,” Smith added. “It's a whole lot easier to deal with it from a proactive and prevention focused perspective, than it is to deal with it on the back end.”

According to state data, 666 people are currently hospitalized due to Covid, with 36% of the state's critical-care ventilators in use. Within the next week, 8% of facilities anticipate staffing shortages.

An average 1,538 people became infected with Covid each day over the last week and nine people died.

To encourage vaccination, Colorado requires employers to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from its side effects. Efforts are additionally being made to expand walk-up access and eliminate the need for an appointments.

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