Boulder County looks to vaccines to win ‘race against’ COVID variants

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Friday, April 16, 2021

One month out from lifting all COVID-related restrictions, Boulder County is once again seeing the virus spread as socializing returns to pre-pandemic levels. If Boulderites want to reach that final level of Colorado’s oft-confusing and controversial color dial, health officials say, they’ll have to keep following the same advice they’ve been issuing all along: Wear your masks. Social distance.

It’s been just over a year since Boulder County Public Health started showing up at city council meetings. In all that time — through rising and slowing cases, increased or declining hospitalizations — they’ve been asking residents to sit tight, stay at home, hold on for an eventual vaccine and return to normal.

On Tuesday, they were finally able to provide a tangible finish line, of sorts: May 16. That’s when Boulder County will enter Level Clear, “our new normal of no restrictions,” said Lexi Nolen, interim director of BCPH. After that, businesses may still choose to limit capacity, but it won’t be because of government mandates.

“Things will become guidance instead,” said Nolen.

Read a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s COVID briefing

Although the state’s COVID dial dissipated Friday, six Denver metro counties agreed to continue some level of restrictions for another four weeks.  In Boulder County, that means the indoor mask mandate will continue and restaurants and gyms can operate at full capacity, provided there are still six feet between patrons. If hospitalizations stay low — just 24 people were hospitalized for COVID, county-wide, as of Tuesday — Level Clear will last through August 15, when it, too, will disappear.

“We can control additional deaths by delaying and slowing policy changes, just by one month,” Nolen said. “Our strategy is to hold things down until mid-May when vaccination rates are significantly higher.”

The target is for 70% of Boulder County’s adult population to be vaccinated by mid-May. The county is making good progress, outpacing the country and state. As of Thursday, 56% of residents had been at least partially vaccinated.

“The point we’re at today, it’s something to celebrate as a community,” said Chris Campbell, emergency manager with BCPH.

Related: Meet Boulder’s vaccine angel

But, like the rest of Colorado, we’re also battling the spread of variants that transmit quicker and more easily. There are six identified COVID variants in the state, propelling yet another spike in cases.

“This is a little bit of a race against the variants,” Nolen said.

With increased vaccination has come increased socialization. Social distancing is at 11% in Boulder; the last time it was that low was before COVID had entered our county. This time last year, social distancing was at 86%. During the fall spike, it dropped as low as 41%.

“People are getting very comfortable,” Nolen said.

Social distancing in Boulder County
Now: 11%
Pre-pandemic: -4 to 10%
Prior 2 weeks: 26% and 28%
April 2020: 86%
July: 53%
October: 41%

Source: Boulder County Public Health

At the same time, with most vulnerable residents protected by a vaccine, fewer people are dying. There was only one recorded COVID death in March, and there have been none (so far) in April.

Boulder County has never fallen to its pre-spike level of community spread. Cases started climbing precipitously in September. Though those spikes were short-lived, the area never returned to low levels seen at the start of the pandemic.

Source: Boulder County Public Health

Foothills Hospital never got overwhelmed — “We never did run out of beds or ventilators,” said Jackie Attlesey-Pries, vice president of operations and chief nursing officer for Boulder Community Health — but workers felt the stress of COVID, on top of wildfires and, recently, the King Soopers shooting. Turnover has been higher than normal, and hiring more difficult as health systems across the country compete for staff.

During the fall surge, “we were literally full,” Attlesey-Pries said. “Typically we get to that a few days in a year, probably less than a dozen times, and we were doing day after day of that last fall. We were pushing our staff very hard with extra shifts and overtime.”

Read more from Attlesey-Pries, and other Boulderites, about their COVID anniversary takeaways

Hospitalizations will be a key measure in determining if Boulder County can remain open, Nolen said, or if it will have to move back to more restrictive health measures. To stay at Level Clear, the county cannot exceed more than two hospital admissions per 100,000 people in a seven-day period.

Even if health care systems aren’t strained, the personal risks of contracting the coronavirus remains the same, BCPH spokesperson Angela Simental said in a March interview.

“Whether you are 70 or 35, how your body is going to react to this virus, it could be a gamble,” Simental said. “We do have to take precautions individually no matter what age we are. We don’t know what might happen if we get it.”

That means getting vaccinated and, until enough of the population is protected, “continuing to wash your hands, social distance, mask, not to gather.”

“I know it’s hard,” Simental said — particularly with the end so close in sight. “It’s just really important to hang in there.”

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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