San Juan Basin Public Health is recommending masks for students, especially those under the age of 12, due to the spread of the Delta Variant.

The Delta variant is the most dominant strain of COVID-19 across the state and health officials are continuing to learn more about it as it spreads. KSUT’s Sarah Flower spoke with Liane Jollon, Executive Director of San Juan Basin Public Health about breakthrough cases with this variant and what the health department’s mask advisory means for schools reopening.

Interview Transcription

Sarah Flower 00:00
Hi, I’m Sarah Flower with KSUT News. Today we are joined by Liane Jollon, Executive Director of San Juan Basin Public Health Department for our COVID-19 update. Liane, hi, thanks for joining us, welcome back.

Liane Jollon 00:14
Thanks for having me, it feels like it’s been a while.

Sarah Flower 00:16
It has been awhile and ever more important for you to be on right now, in the thick of what is switching. I feel like we’re in a new playbook and dealing with this pandemic, and the rise of the Delta variant is more concerning than ever before. Let’s fill us in on this Delta variant. And what we know today.

Liane Jollon 00:36
Well, the Delta variant has really taken the U.S. by storm. I mean, it has out competed every other variant that’s been introduced to anywhere in the country. And now we really have a pandemic of the Delta variant. There isn’t any other type of COVID that is being transmitted currently in the U.S. anywhere.

Sarah Flower 00:57
Liane for the schools opening their doors for the fall semester being right around the corner, some districts across the state are choosing to do a mass mandate, while others are not. Let’s get your thoughts on that.

Liane Jollon 01:09
Well, I think the reason that schools are introducing mask mandates are because it is what the CDC recommends. Our advisory at San Juan Basin Public Health and the CDC is recommending required masks if community transmission is substantial or high. So the reason for this are the unknowns around the Delta variant. So one of the things that suspected about Delta, the reason that it transmits so easily, and is potentially making people more ill more quickly is because the virus has gotten really, really good at replicating itself, right. So when you think about a variant, the reason that variants out compete other variants is because the virus is like anything else, it’s just trying to figure out how to survive. So you get a little glitch in its, you know, gene sequence. And that glitch makes it easier and better at surviving. And it can find more hosts more quickly, and it can ramp up really quickly in its host. So that’s what the Delta has done. That’s why it’s taken over. And we’re starting to suspect that in all populations, when you’re exposed to delta, you get a really high viral load really quickly. That vaccinated people are going to be really, really protected from this, but unvaccinated people are not going to be protected. So what’s our largest group of unvaccinated people? Right now it’s people who are under the age of 12, because we don’t have vaccines available. If this proves to be what’s happening with Delta, and there’s a tremendous amount of suspicion, and this is what people are looking into right now, there’s going to be some real big differences between the Delta virus transmission, then the initial COVID. So initially, with COVID, there was a lot of evidence that kids under 10, didn’t build up significant viral loads, they didn’t pass it on to each other, they didn’t pass it on to adults at really high rates, because if they did get sick, their viral loads were lower. If that’s not the case, with Delta, then we’re going to have a lot of disease passed around in unvaccinated populations, which right now are people under the age of 12, as well as immune compromised and other older adults that may not have been able to build up good immunity from the vaccine. So this is the nut that people are really trying to crack and really understand. And with that, what the CDC has done and said, if your community transmission is substantial or high, you really do need to require masks in school populations so that we can get ahead of this and not fall too far behind. And that’s what the recommendation is. So we’re seeing that happen all over the state of Colorado right now.

Sarah Flower 04:00
Do the same rules apply and keeping everybody safe? Is it still safer to be outside? What changes?

Liane Jollon 04:06
Yes, absolutely. So the things that we have talked about over the last 18 months, which are, take activities outside when possible. If you must have an activity indoors, work on improving the ventilation in your indoor spaces, right. And this can be done as simply as opening windows, creating kind of cross flow, keeping doors open. Right. So outside is best indoors with good ventilation, and anything you can do to improve ventilation is good, physical distancing, maintaining that six feet and wearing masks indoors is all important right now, even though vaccine is the best path forward.

Sarah Flower 04:47
I do want to touch on breakthrough cases. I think maybe people are surprised as they’re testing positive and fully vaccinated, which is happening in this community. And is it something that you’re monitoring at San Juan Basin? And what does that look like?

Liane Jollon 05:01
We are, we’re monitoring it here. And then it’s being monitored on a state level. And it’s being monitored on a national level. And we’re expecting to see some adjustments of percentages of cases in fully vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals. But I think the most important thing to know about breakthrough cases is that the overwhelming majority of cases are in unvaccinated people. Then when we have cases in vaccinated people, and it does occur, and that is something that was always expected with this pandemic, because no vaccine is 100%. What we are seeing with the Delta variant, though, is more breakthrough cases than were anticipated before Delta took over the country. And what we’re seeing is that there are suspicions that when you are fully vaccinated, and you are exposed to the Delta variant, you may or may not get sick, but you can also absorb virus, have virus replicating in your upper respiratory system, and pass that on to others unknowingly. So this is the big change that’s happening with the Delta, there and that is under study and scientific inquiry right now. But in an abundance of caution, because a lot of that is getting teased out, the recommendation is to go back to masking, because there’s a lot we don’t know about these breakthrough infections.

Sarah Flower 06:40
San Juan Basin Public Health recently received almost a million dollars in grant funding from the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration. How is this going to be a game changer for you and your team and vaccine resources?

Liane Jollon 06:55
Well, San Juan Basin Public Health applied directly to the federal government for additional funding for rural vaccine uptake. What we have found over the last eight or nine months in the public health community is different levels of uptake of vaccine in different parts of the country with different demographics with different educational status or socio economic status, and just lots of variability in who’s getting vaccinated. So with that, the federal government made some funding available specifically to rural communities. And you know, as a rural community, we have populations here that may be hesitant to get vaccinated, you know, if you’re undocumented and unsure if that means that you’re eligible for a vaccine, or if your life is very complex, where you’re working two or three jobs, and it’s really hard to get into a site. There’s language barriers, there’s all kinds of reasons that people may want to get a vaccine and just haven’t been able to put it together yet. And there’s also unknowns about what’s happening next with vaccine, right, will boosters become part of the story? What other things are we going to need to offer the community to keep everyone as safe as possible. So sSan Juan Basin Public Health applied directly to the federal government. And we were very, very fortunate, I believe we’re the only organization in the state of Colorado that availed themselves of this funding. And what we will be able to do with this is work to reach harder to reach populations, and work with community groups. So if there are community groups out there listening, that work with a population that you know, is not able to access vaccine as easily as everybody else, for whatever reason. We with this funding, will be able to pass funding on to other organizations, build partnerships, and really grow a community effort so that we can stay on the leading edge of getting people vaccinated as a rural community. So the challenges in rural communities are different than they are in urban communities. You know, there’s transportation issues, there’s broadband issues, there’s all kinds of things. So with that in the federal government, that we’re making a few specific funding options available for rural communities to see what they can build. And we get to be a kind of a test case community to see what we can do here.

Sarah Flower 09:23
Liane Jollon, Executive Director of San Juan Basin Public Health, is there anything else you want to add for us here today?

Liane Jollon 09:28
Let’s go out and get vaccinated and remember that vaccine is the most important thing that we can do. But due to this new Delta variant, we are going to have to return to a layered approach. And we really implore people to take this seriously, because there’s a lot about the Delta variant we don’t know yet.

Sarah Flower 09:46
Liane Jollon, thanks for joining us on KSUT News for our COVID-19 update.