In recognition of the growing prevalence of the COVID-19 delta variant, the Teton County Health Department has moved the county’s risk level to the red or “high” level.
The Health Department has changed the way it establishes that risk level to align with how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does it, with focus on transmission rates.
“We are hoping that this change will allow community members to easily see the metrics that show the transmission level of COVID-19 in our community,” Director of Health Jodie Pond said in a statement. “While the other COVID metrics are important, they do not play as large of a role in the risk of getting COVID-19 in our community.”
To reflect the new risk scale and the heightened transmission rate, the Jackson Hole Daily has recommenced running the COVID-19 risk dial on the front page.
The Health Department recommends that while the county is in the high-risk level people wear face masks, socially distance and avoid crowded spaces, limit trips to the grocery store and other public places, and get vaccinated.
In response to the growing spike, government and some businesses are changing their hours or practices. Teton County and federal agencies are mandating masks in some places, and the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitors Center closed Thursday. It plans to reopen Sunday with limited services outside the building, weather dependent.
At the outset of the pandemic, Pond and her staff developed a set of metrics that took into account a variety of factors, including hospital capacity, availability of personal protective equipment, community spread and number of cases, among others. Federal and state agencies hadn’t developed their own universal criteria, so county health officials took the initiative.
Because the pandemic had so many risk factors at the time, Pond said, the metrics were expansive.
“We had limited contact tracing ability. Hospital capacity was limited. We couldn’t get PPE,” Pond said. “These were all things that national metrics were telling us that you need to look at in order to understand how robust your system is to respond.”
By that logic, the risk would rise if protective equipment was scarce, even if cases were low, because systems were less prepared to respond. Over the course of the past year, the Health Department and St. John’s Health have ramped up their capacity.
With those systems in place, viral transmission and case rates have become the main source of community risk. Since the CDC scale takes into account transmission rates and the rate of positive tests, Pond said, it better matches Teton County’s current situation.
“We’ve got a pretty good, robust public health infrastructure [and] hospital infrastructure to deal with the COVID pandemic,” she said. “What we really are trying to look at now is educating the community and communicating what the risk level is in terms of COVID transmission.”
On that end, things aren’t looking great in the valley. As Teton County shifts to red, cases are climbing quickly, eclipsing where they were at this time last year, despite roughly 71% of the population being vaccinated.
The Health Department has taken over operating the JHCOVID.com dashboard, which it will update daily from Tuesday to Friday while the county is in the red. As of Thursday afternoon, the dashboard showed 123 active cases, with a seven-day rate of 16 new cases per day — more than double what the case rate was two weeks ago.
Those cases are locals, Pond said, with out-of-town workers and tourists being counted where they live. Earlier this summer, most cases were seen in tourists, but in recent weeks the trend has switched toward residents.
Roughly half of recent cases are breakthroughs, in which a fully vaccinated person becomes infected. Though the percentage of breakthrough cases is higher than what is being reported in other areas, vaccinated people aren’t ending up in the hospital. Updated Wyoming Department of Health data from the past few months shows that around 5% of COVID-19 hospitalizations are vaccinated people.
Even though the number of cases in vaccinated and unvaccinated people is about even, Pond said, people who haven’t gotten the shot are still more likely to contract COVID-19. Because far more people in Teton County are vaccinated, the infection rate among them is lower than in unvaccinated people.
So far, the surge has increased the number of hospitalizations but it hasn’t pushed St. John’s Health to capacity. COVID-19 Response Director Dr. Paul Beaupre said the hospital isn’t at capacity in the primary and intensive care units, which its daily updates also show.
Though he’s always keeping tabs on COVID-19 trends, Beaupre has a different worry.
“What I’m seeing right now that has to be somewhat concerning is we’re starting to see more breakthroughs in staff,” he said.
Even though the vaccines will likely keep St. John’s employees from developing severe cases, quarantines due to exposure or isolations because of active infections could diminish the frontline worker ranks.
“What would hurt us more than actual beds is ability to staff beds,” he said. “If we had a large outbreak of COVID within our staff and had to do a lot of quarantining, that would be a problem for us.”