SWEETWATER COUNTY — When it comes to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving herd immunity, and returning to normal, there are two recommended options, according to Sweetwater County Health Officer Jean Stachon: either you get the vaccine or continue preventative measures like masking and distancing. She encourages people to do both.
“We obviously don’t recommend getting [COVID] as an option,” Dr. Stachon stressed.
Dr. Stachon noted that herd immunity levels come from those who have developed immunity either after contracting COVID-19 or receiving the vaccine, and until herd immunity is reached, precautionary measures such as wearing masks and physically distancing will continue to be necessary.
Dr. Stachon made these comments during the bimonthly Zoom meeting update on COVID-19 for local health officials and community leaders on Monday. Topics of discussion during the meeting included Sweetwater County’s case numbers, local testing and vaccination efforts, and speculation for the future.
Sweetwater County’s COVID-19 case numbers and statistics have continued to trend downward, Dr. Stachon reported. There were 3,518 cases reported as of Monday, and confirmed active cases have stayed around 50 lately. As of the meeting time, Sweetwater County was ranked fifth in the state for cases. The county’s positivity rate has gone down to 6.3%, Stachon reported.
Roughly 7,000 people in Sweetwater County had been immunized as of Monday, according to Stachon. Considering the numbers of people who’ve had the virus and those who’ve been vaccinated, Sweetwater County should be close to 25% herd immunity, Dr. Stachon estimated. She also explained that factoring in unreported cases of COVID-19, Sweetwater County may even be close to a one-third herd immunity level.
Kim White, the COVID-19 incident commander at Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County, noted that the hospital only had one COVID-19 patient on a ventilator on Monday afternoon, and lately the hospital has been averaging one to two COVID-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit.
Testing has slowed down, according to Dr. Cielette Karn at the hospital and Dr. Connie Fauntleroy at the Castle Rock Medical Center, although multiple testing options are still available. Dr. Fauntleroy noted that Castle Rock may transition their testing from the current drive-thru to the main clinic at the beginning of March.
Local health officials explained that vaccination efforts hit a “snag” last week when vaccine shipments were disrupted by winter weather across the country. Dr. Fauntleroy said she hopes they will be able to get back on track in the coming week. Public Health Director Kim Lionberger also noted that vaccines coming in will have to be used to make up for problems with distribution last week.
Lionberger explained that Sweetwater County hasn’t received information on March’s vaccine allotments, so no first dose appointments are being scheduled yet, but she hopes to receive information and begin scheduling clinics soon. Depending on vaccine allocations, Sweetwater County may be able to move into the 1c category sometime in March, Lionberger estimated.
Another vaccine update involves scheduling appointments. Public Health will be transitioning to an online system for scheduling COVID-19 vaccination appointments, Lionberger explained. She said it may take time to transition to the new system, but she believes it will ultimately make getting an appointment easier.
During discussion toward the end of the meeting, Dr. Stachon and Dr. Karn shared their thoughts on vaccination distribution. Dr. Karn said that she believes it would be best for Sweetwater County if it were possible to make the vaccine available to anyone who wants it, rather than having to follow a tiered approach that moves from one category to the next. Dr. Stachon agreed, and said Sweetwater County officials have tried to open up vaccinations for the 1c category sooner, but they are limited by the state’s guidelines. Stachon noted that local health officials continue to do as much as possible within restrictions.
In response to questions about upcoming events, such as graduations and fairs, Dr. Stachon noted that many plans are still being considered based on scenarios of where case numbers are at the time.
“I would think those events would go on, but they may look a little different,” Stachon said.
In response to another question regarding mask wearing, Dr. Stachon said that predicting how long everyone will have to continue wearing masks is “a moving target,” but everyone should plan to continue wearing them into and through the summer at the least.
Dr. Stachon reiterated her belief that mask wearing has been effective in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Karn noted that Sweetwater Memorial has seen almost no cases of flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, among children lately, which she attributes to kids wearing masks, which help protect from other diseases besides just COVID-19. She and Dr. Stachon agreed that mask wearing may become more normalized in the future as part of routines in handling sicknesses.
“Masks are effective,” Stachon said, adding that she believes wearing masks has “kept our county up and running,” and is “a small price to pay to be able to function.”