COVID rates soar in low-vaccinated Mesa County
October deaths in Mesa County highest level since November 2020
The Center For Independence in Grand Junction commemorated 334 lives lost to COVID-19 during an art installation, seen Nov. 1, 2021. Each white flag represents a person who has died in Mesa County from the pandemic. (Courtesy of Katherine Lopez)
In Mesa County, 43 people died during October due to COVID-19. New daily case rates have risen steadily since early August, and with area hospitals often at full capacity, officials with Mesa County Public Health are concerned about the approaching holiday season.
Eighteen people have died of COVID over the past two weeks.
“We haven’t seen that many deaths since November 2020,” when 45 people died from the virus, said MCPH communications coordinator Stefany Busch. “It is worrisome when we compare deaths from October 2020 to October 2021. We have far worse illnesses in 2021.”
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In August, MCPH reported an average of 30 new COVID cases a day. In recent weeks that average has climbed to 100 per day — until Wednesday, when 180 new cases were reported, along with 40 hospitalizations due to COVID.
Grand Junction’s St. Mary’s Medical Center and Community Hospital have been sending its less serious or recovering COVID cases to Colorado Canyons Hospital and Medical Center in Fruita — a 25-bed critical access hospital. Twenty-four of its beds are occupied, five by COVID patients.
“If I had two surgeries scheduled tomorrow I would have to cancel one,” Colorado Canyons physician Korrey Klein said on Wednesday. Klein is also CEO and president of Family Health West, owner and operator of Colorado Canyons Hospital.
When Colorado Canyons is at capacity it impacts the two Grand Junction hospitals, as well, Klein said. In fact, a patient had to be transported to the Front Range this week because there were no available hospital beds in the Grand Valley, he said.
Increase of long-haulers
Colorado Canyons Hospital is the only medical center in the valley to administer monoclonal antibody treatments. It was delivering one to three monoclonal treatments per day during the summer and is now giving five to 10 infusions each day, Klein said.
“We could do even more if we had the capacity and staff,” he said.
Emergency rooms in the valley have been triaging to set people up with oxygen at home because of a lack of resources, he said.
Klein said there’s also been a “huge increase” in patients seeking care from its Post-COVID Recovery Team. The hospital’s Post-COVID clinic currently has 150 patients with lingering symptoms from the virus — so-called long-haulers, Klein said. Symptoms often include chronic fatigue and shortness of breath.
The clinic offers evaluations, respiratory treatments, and physical therapy for people suffering long-term side effects from the virus. The clinic also performs lung function studies.
In response to Mesa County’s spike in COVID cases, Community Hospital is voluntarily and temporarily postponing some but not all elective surgeries that require post-operative hospitalization. As of Thursday, the hospital had 13 COVID patients, spokeswoman Karen Martsolf said.
St. Mary’s did not respond to questions from Colorado Newsline.
“When we look at cumulative cases of hospital admissions since April 1, we find that 86% are unvaccinated,” Busch said. Those who are hospitalized and vaccinated appear to have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has been noted for its waning immunity, Klein said.
In Mesa County, 53% of eligible people have received at least one dose of a vaccine. “That’s low,” Busch said.
Mesa County has the lowest vaccination rate for communities of its size in Colorado. Out of 64 counties, Mesa has the 24th lowest vaccination rate in the state.
Mesa County commissioners signed a “Free to Choose” resolution in March 2021, when many businesses stopped requiring masks of its customers and employees.
There have been at least 26 active outbreaks throughout the Grand Valley’s public and private schools, where masks are not required.
When a single case occurs in an elementary school classroom, whether it be a student or staff member, the entire class must wear masks for 14 calendar days, said District 51 spokeswoman Emily Shockley. The infected person must follow health department guidelines and remain home for an isolation period of 10 days from the start of their symptoms. Protocols differ for middle- and high-school students who switch classes throughout the day. Keeping Schools Open Plan.
Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction does not have a mask mandate, and will not allow faculty members to enforce mask-wearing in their classes.
On Oct. 28, Gov. Jared Polis signed two executive orders to address the high rate of hospitalizations in Colorado, limited hospital capacity and staff shortages. One authorizes state health departments to direct hospitals and freestanding emergency departments to redirect patients to other facilities. The other clarifies when crisis standards of care — guidelines on how to allocate scarce resources such as ventilators and intensive care unit beds — can be applied.
On Tuesday, Polis announced that the state had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deploy medical teams to areas with especially full hospitals.
Mesa County has reported 1,234 new cases in the last two weeks — 85% of which are unvaccinated individuals. “We know the vaccine is the best defense against death, severe illness, and it reduces transmission,” Busch said. And while some infected people may have mild symptoms, increasing hospitalizations due to COVID are overwhelming our hospitals which can impact ability to care for other catastrophes, she said.
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