San Juan Basin Public Health update, November 30, 2021

Four Corners Public Radio | By Sarah Flower
Published November 29, 2021

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Scientist in laboratory studying and analyzing scientific sample of Coronavirus monoclonal antibodies to produce drug treatment for COVID-19. Shutterstock / Shutterstock

Health officials in southwest Colorado are keeping an eye on developments around the recently-discovered Omicron variant of COVID-19. But the big concern continues to be the Delta variant and its effect on hospital capacity. Liane Jollon with San Juan Basin Public Health joins KSUT’s Sarah Flower to talk about it.

Interview transcript:

Sarah Flower
Liane, I think the only place to start today is this new variant that's been detected in South Africa. What do we know? What do we need to know? And how is this a game changer in protecting
ourselves against COVID-19?

Liane Jollon
There has been reports of a new variant circulating in South Africa for just over a week or so. And late last week, it was labeled a variant of concern by the WHO, because the characteristics of this variant seem to imply that it is going to be highly transmissible, potentially even more transmissible, then the Delta variant, which is currently the most dominant variant in the U.S. So the WHO wanted to act early to warn people that this new variant seems to have characteristics that will make it spread more quickly. And there are tremendous unknowns about how severe of an illness it will cause. Will it cause mild symptoms? Will it cause more severe symptoms? Will it cause a spike in hospitalizations, all of these things are to be determined at this point, because the World Health Organization labeled it a variant of concern very early in the process. The other thing that's not known right now, is whether or not this variant will be contained by the vaccines that we're currently using in the U.S. in the form that they exist right now, or if there would potentially need to be adjustments made to the vaccines. So I think the really important takeaways are that right now, we are in a winter surge in the U.S. for the Delta variant. We are seeing extreme pressure in Colorado, on our hospitals and our health care providers to treat people who are passing around the Delta variant. And scientists have an eye on this next variant with really more
unknowns than knowns.

I know it's not surprising to people that study this, and new variants are popping up across the world as people are not vaccinated and protected against it. But for people that have been following this diligently, it feels like a bit of a gut check, especially when that came through just the day after Thanksgiving. Liane, how does this change the game for a public health director here in rural Colorado in stopping the
transmission of COVID-19?

Well, so far no Omicron cases have been identified in the U.S. Now we suspect that they are here and they will be identified very soon. But as of right this second, it doesn't change our day to day activities. Colorado has been on the leading edge of a winter surge. We're seeing lots of other states kind of catch up to where Colorado was in this winter surge, and really increase transmission and increase use of hospital beds all across the upper midwest, other western states, other cold climate states right now. So what we have to do is put all of our efforts into preserving the health care and the hospital capacity that we have in the state of Colorado right now. And let others study the new variant and guide us as we learn more. But our day to day activities right now in Colorado, are really focused on the fact that we've gone into a holiday season while we were already in a very, very high transmission state, and had tremendous pressure on our hospitals. So what we need to be doing as Coloradans is protecting ourselves and protecting our friends and family from the variant that we have
here right now.

One of the tools in the tool belt that Colorado Governor Jared Polis has talked about to help alleviate some of that strain on the health care system is the treatment of monoclonal antibodies. And moreover, pushing that off to mobile units. Is that something that we're going to be seeing
here in southwest Colorado?

As a matter of fact, the state has sent down here to Durango, a monoclonal antibody treatment mobile unit in the form of a bus. The bus is at La Plata County Fairgrounds right now. So the big change in the last couple of days is that the state of Colorado has created an opportunity for people to self refer and self schedule at the bus if they test positive for COVID-19 right now. So if you test positive and you are at high risk for severe illness, so meaning that you are of an advanced age over the age of 65. If you have a pre-existing condition, if you're overweight or obese, you can get on the state website and make yourself an appointment. And we highly recommend that you get in and take advantage of this excellent resource that the state has staged down here in our community. Monoclonal antibodies are not a substitution for a vaccine. The best thing that you can do to protect your health and the health of those around you is get vaccinated. What we are seeing here and what we're seeing consistently in our region, is that upwards of 90% of the people in the hospital are not vaccinated, so get yourself vaccinated. But if you do test positive, please do take advantage of the monoclonal antibodies. It is an excellent step to keeping you from needing hospital care.