The Center for Disease Control is expected to announce new guidelines today on mask wearing for those that are vaccinated and returning to school. KSUT’s Sarah Flower spoke with Brian Devine, Deputy Incident Commander for COVID-19 Response at San Juan Basin Public Health about schools reopening, and the importance of getting vaccinated to protect yourself and others from the Delta variant.


Sarah Flower 00:00
Hi, I’m Sarah Flower with KSUT News. Today we are joined by Brian Devine, the Environmental Director at San Juan Basin Public Health, as well as the Deputy Commander for COVID-19 Emergency Response. Brian, thanks so much for joining us here today.

Brian Devine 00:16
Thank you for having me, Sarah.

Sarah Flower 00:17
We’ve got a lot to talk about. We haven’t chatted and caught up in a minute. I think what’s greatest on the minds of many right now is what’s transforming with COVID-19 in terms of this Delta variant, and what we’re seeing across the two counties that you serve, which are La Plata and Archuleta County. And as of today, this moment, Brian, I know that genomic testing is a little bit behind, but in terms of Archuleta County the Delta variant is almost the leading one for that county, and slowly growing for La Plata.

Brian Devine 00:50
That is correct. There is a delay between when somebody gets tested, and when that test gets analyzed through genomic sequencing to determine what variant it is. Based on what we know about the Delta variant and how much we have so far, and how many variant analysis tests we have out that have not yet been completed, we believe that the Delta variant is the dominant variant in both La Plata and Archuleta counties currently. What does dominant mean? There’s no exact definition of that. But it’s certainly more likely that if you have COVID-19, it’s more likely than not that you have the Delta variant. If you’re in southwest Colorado, we have seen this across the world with other variants getting replaced with a Delta variant. It is significantly easier to transmit and to catch this variant than others, which is why it really becomes the major variant within a population or within a region. And so that is playing itself out in southwest Colorado as well. We expect that probably upwards of 90% of cases in the next week or two will be that Delta variant, which means it’s really incumbent on people to be very cautious, even if they’re fully vaccinated. Because we do see more vaccine breakthrough infections with the Delta variant and there is a growing body of evidence now that vaccinated people may be able to transmit the Delta variant to others, even if they themselves do not get sick. So all the evidence that we’re collecting day by day shows that this is a very serious time in the pandemic, as we start to prepare for children returning to school, and as new cases are much more likely than not to be that highly transmissible Delta variant.

Sarah Flower 02:40
It is a new turning point in this pandemic, as we’re seeing this grow and explode really throughout the world. That’s not unique to southwest Colorado, but also Brian, as you mentioned, if you’re a parent, and you’re following what’s happening for schools returning, it’s such an uncertain and questionable time, but it’s seeming like more and more masking is what’s going to protect our children, especially those who are ineligible to get vaccinated at this point.

Brian Devine 03:10
San Juan Basin Public Health has had a public health advisory for some time, where we advised everybody to continue wearing masks in public indoor spaces, with some exceptions, of course, unless everyone president was fully vaccinated, we did this based on the early evidence of some of these more transmissible variants. And the benefits to wearing a very low cost solution like a mask for protecting the people around you as well as yourself. It does sound like the more that we learn about the Delta variant other agencies are starting to come in alignment with our early public health advisory. We’ve seen it reported just today that the CDC is going to issue a new public health advisory recommending masks, both in the school setting as well as in public indoor spaces, in counties with high transmission. We don’t know all the details on that. We’re certainly learning about it in real time along with everyone else, but it does seem that our public health advisory got it right in the first place. Based on what we’re learning about these variants, it is recommended to continue wearing a mask indoors in order to prevent transmission to the unvaccinated people around you. Even if you yourself do not get sick. 

We know that parents and schoolchildren are anxiously awaiting what the rules will be for their own school and their own school district for the fall. San Juan Basin Public Health has been working diligently with all of our districts and our independent schools to come up with the best possible plans for the fall semester, incorporating different sources of guidance, the new CDC guidance that we’re expecting today, we’ll be able to add that in to our recommendations to the schools for the upcoming school year. And hopefully our districts and independent schools will incorporate that guidance as it becomes available. Of course, there’s nothing stopping people from wearing a mask in settings even beyond where it’s recommended. So we continue to advise all parents and students, even if it’s not required to wear a mask in your school, it is going to be a lot of work to keep yourself safe, especially in combination with other strategies, like getting tested, keeping track of your exposures and your schedule so you know who you’ve been exposed to. That helps our public health investigations for schools, they can increase their ventilation, and reduce the number of people that students are in contact with. These are all good strategies taken together to reduce the risk in the school setting. And then of course, even if masking is not required for your child, it may help protect them from the Coronavirus as well as protect others around them both in the school setting, and at home. When you’re in contact with a lot of people at school, you have a lot of chance to acquire the virus. Most children do not have the most serious health outcomes from this virus. But we do see a lot of instances of them transmitting it both in and outside the school setting to others, especially older adults who might have serious complications. So our recommendation as always is just to never rely on a single strategy, masking, ventilation, testing, hand hygiene, participating in contact tracing, all of these fit together on top of each other to provide the maximum level of protection. And that’s what we will continue to advise our public and our schools as we come into the school year.

Sarah Flower 06:33
Brian I did an interview recently with the medical director at Mercy Regional Medical Center, Dr. Gus Hallin who couldn’t have been screaming louder about this as being a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and urging those at such a critical juncture to to get vaccinated. Now at this point, Dr. Fauci has said that this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated and for those that are hesitant or anti vaxxer. What is this tipping point going to be to protect everybody to say we need to get vaccinated? How many more people need to be yelling that?

Brian Devine 07:04
I couldn’t agree more with what you just said. It is very much a pandemic of the unvaccinated, depending on exactly how you calculate the statistics and what month you’re looking at, you get a little bit different numbers. But it’s clear that upwards of 94% of hospitalizations and fatalities are in the unvaccinated population since vaccines became widely available, I can’t think of another vaccine that produces results that effective. We do see that people with the Delta variant can test positive after they get vaccinated. But it’s extremely rare for them to have serious symptoms. That means the best way to protect yourself as well as protect the people around you, especially those who can’t get vaccinated either for a medical reason, or because they’re too young, is to get vaccinated yourself. We know that people have different reasons for declining vaccination. People are concerned about side effects, people are concerned that it’s still authorized under emergency use authorization. And that additional study is still ongoing. We believe that a lot of these are going to be a lot of these concerns are going to be resolved in short order. But of course, everyone has their own reason for not getting vaccinated. We continue to do even one on one outreach with people who want more information about the vaccines, about how effective and safe they are to show that the vaccines really can save that person’s life. I think it’s going to take a real societal push to say, no, vaccination is part of our social contract. It’s part of being a part of this healthy society, this healthy community that we all share. I don’t know how you could go through the pandemic and not conclude that your actions affect others, and that we all share spaces and choices together. So I think it’s going to take a real effort by all of us in society to declare, no, vaccination is the right thing to do. Whatever your objections are, we’re going to help you as a group overcome those and join the ranks of the vaccinated so that we can put this pandemic behind us

Sarah Flower 09:04
Brian Devine, Environmental Health Director for San Juan Basin Public Health as well as a deputy incident commander for COVID-19 emergency response. Is there anything else that you want to add for our listeners?

Brian Devine 09:14
I just want to thank everybody who has chosen to be vaccinated so far. We know for many of you that was not an easy choice. Thank you for doing the right thing for protecting yourself for protecting our healthcare system and protecting the people that you love, that you interact with, every day. We’ve got a strong vaccination rate in southwest Colorado, but we have a long way to go. Thank you for doing your part and for doing your part to help others around you make that same choice.

Sarah Flower 09:40
Brian, thanks so much for your time today and for our COVID 19 update here on KSUT.