As Omicron spreads to the Western Slope, local healthcare braces — again |

As Omicron spreads to the Western Slope, local healthcare braces — again

Memorial Regional Health's Memorial Clinic in Craig.
Billy Schuerman / For the Craig Press

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has become the United States’ primary strain in recent days, and the newest mutation of the virus is already ticking up on the western slope.

While the variant is yet to be discovered in Moffat County, there’s essentially no doubt it will be soon, given the speed at which it’s spreading.

That means a likely new surge for healthcare providers, especially in a county where just 48% of the county 5 years of age and older is vaccinated — the 13th least-vaccinated count in the state.

“We’ve been preparing for this — really we’re in the same state of preparedness that we’ve been in for over a year,” said Memorial Regional Health interim CEO Jennifer Riley Tuesday. “The biggest factor with Omicron is how quickly it spreads. The number one concern is an outbreak on our staff creating shortages in staffing — further shortages in staffing.”

Fortunately, those who have received both the two-step Pfizer or Moderna vaccination and a booster thereof are responding very well to the Omicron strain, which has proven particularly capable of creating breakthrough cases, despite not often developing severe infection in vaccinated individuals.

“Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant,” the CDC website reads. “However, breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated are likely to occur. With other variants, like Delta, vaccines have remained effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and death. The recent emergence of Omicron further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters.”

Riley said that residents should expect a lag time to discover that the COVID-19 variant they might have or have had was Omicron, due to the time it takes for the state laboratory to process the sequencing of tests.

“Getting results (of positive or negative) is much quicker,” Riley said. “A lot of people may be out of quarantine by the time they find out they had a certain variant.”

Omicron hasn’t definitively been proven to have a more severe or deadly effect on those who contract it than Delta, the previous dominant strain of the virus, but has been found to spread even more quickly — particularly among the vaccinated.

But vaccines — especially when boosted — remain an extremely effective way to combat the worst effects of any strain of the virus, including Omicron.

“It’s true that if you have COVID you have COVID — doesn’t matter if it’s Alpha, Delta or Omicron,” Riley said. “But Omicron is spreading two or three times faster than Delta was, and the number of people getting infected is much greater. Our concern of course is the impact on healthcare.”

Another concern is that Omicron, like Delta, seems to be more dangerous to younger populations than the original Alpha strain of the virus was. Children ages 5 and up are eligible for vaccination, but significantly fewer children are vaccinated than those who are older and were previously eligible.

For anybody, though, the best defense is either a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine and an appropriately timed booster.

“If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Riley said. “If you are vaccinated, get your booster.”

Riley was on a call with the Colorado Hospital Association Thursday afternoon and reported that 50% of new positive tests in the state are coming back as the Omicron variant, according to Darlene Tad-y of the CHA.

“They were originally projecting we would see a full takeover of Omicron in about two weeks, but now they’re feeling closer to three to five days,” Riley said.

Nationally, about 70% of new positives are of the new variant.

“(CHA) discussed natural immunity — people previously infected by COVID-19 — as well as those with just the primary (two-shot) series of the vaccine, and they said those are not very effective (defenses) against Omicron,” Riley said. “People boosted with an mRNA vaccine have 70 to 75% efficacy against Omicron.”

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