Fall has arrived, and with it the approach of the holiday season and more time with loved ones. But how will the holiday season look amid a pandemic?
With the globally declared pandemic of the novel coronavirus, models from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation are projecting that a peak in virus-related deaths won’t come until January 2021. Colorado’s and Montrose County’s models parallel this projection, but the accuracy of any forecast lessens the further out it’s predicted.
But this isn’t the first time Americans faced a pandemic during the fall and winter time. The last time was when World War I was ending and a months-long pandemic erupted in 1918, killing 195,000 Americans in October alone.
The Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people globally and roughly 675,000 people in the U.S.
Faced with another pandemic heading into the fall and winter months, some national health experts fear a spike in COVID-19 cases. If projections are accurate, the novel coronavirus could kill over 2,900 people every day in America by the end of 2020, based on projections released from IHME Monday.
Locally, Montrose County Public Health officials and medical professionals realize there is a risk for an influx in cases at any point during the pandemic, but if Montrose County residents continue to practice their due diligence, then the outcome is not as bleak.
Dr. Joe Adragna said since the start of the pandemic, Montrose County residents have changed their behaviors by wearing face coverings, not shaking hands, social distancing, decreasing office capacities and visiting public places less frequently.
“There is always a concern that there could be a change in our reproductive number or changes in human behavior that then increases the transmissibility of the virus and that leads to more cases and that leads to more hospitalizations,” Adragna said.
Throughout the pandemic, Adragna said mask wearing continues to improve.
“We have seen that the mask use has been up and with that changes on the small scale and on the large scale like not shaking hands as much as we used to and doing elbow bumps more or just standing a little bit further away from people you don’t really associate with to keep that distance or going to the grocery store a few less times per week … those things are being done all day, every day in this community and have really beaten back COVID.”
Although such actions have not eliminated the risk of contracting COVID-19, those cultural changes have curved the COVID-19 cases positively for the county, compared to early projections.
Projections indicated a potential spike would occur in October, which has not yet occurred and Adragna does not project the county will see that spike. One potential risk to the community is travel though.
“What we see beyond those day-to-day interactions that we have with each other that have changed slightly and in cases in large ways we are also influenced by the amount of external travel to our community,” he said.
During the summer, the area saw an influx in out-of-state travelers around the same time the statewide mask mandate went into effect. Subsequently, tourists traveling from high risk states started to leave, which decreased the risk of COVID-19 spreading.
“About the summer, we saw an increase in mask use and decreasing risk from out of state travelers, so we started to see a reduction in the spread,” Adragna said. “It took until a peak in early August to tell because of course with the virus, the numbers don’t change tomorrow if you make a behavior change today.”
After a surge in cases following the July 4 holiday, the number began to decline before another spike occurred in early August during back to school. However, Adragna said through collaboration between the district and community, there was a heightened awareness about the importance of wearing masks.
“What we saw was with the school district and their policies, the families and their concerns and considerations, did a wonderful job and it really enhanced awareness and practices in the community around safe behaviors,” he said.
Though there is uncertainty about if and when a future spike will occur, Adragna reminds the community of the five actions they can take from a public perspective to take control of the virus: stay socially distanced, wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible, wash hands frequently, stay home if sick and stay home if exposed to someone who is sick.
“Those five things are doing a wonderful job at keeping our spread down,” he said.
Local data is not projecting a spike this fall and Adragna said hospital systems are not at risk for exceeding capacity.
“I think we’re going to get through this fall just fine,” he said. “Our hospital system is not a risk and it’s not going to be at risk this fall.”
The risks through the coming months and even into next year are the holidays and an increase in travelers during the ski season.
“That’s the risk that I’m really focusing on — the travel and the holidays,” Adragna said. “Those gatherings (holidays) are potential opportunities to spread the virus.”
He encourages the community to stay mindful of those gatherings and to conduct a self-assessment of symptoms to avoid spreading the virus to loved ones. He also recommends wearing a mask when possible at those gatherings to help reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.
Coinfection is also possible as flu season continues, meaning a person could catch the flu or COVID-19 and become more susceptible to catching another virus.
“Studies indicate that between 12% and 27% of people have a coinfection with another respiratory pathogen,” he said. “You can have a coinfection because the virus distracts the body to fight that off and leaves the body’s immune system open to another infection.”
The biggest opportunity Adragna sees for the community to help keep the COVID-19 count low is to stay home if you are sick or become exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.
Recently, there has been discussions about COVID-19 potentially being transmitted as an aerosol in the air, meaning the virus stays in the air for a longer period of time. Adragna said aerosolizing events occur when people are breathing heavily, like at the gym, during child birth or during some surgeries. However, he points out that minimizing a person’s risk of getting COVID-19 to zero is impossible, so keep making good choices.
Montrose County Media Relations Manager Katie Yergensen said the county recorded seven positive COVID-19 cases the first week of October and an additional six cases this week, but the percent positivity case count remains relatively low.
But, now is not the time to let up.
“We want to remain vigilant,” Yergensen said. “We recognize that this pandemic hasn’t been easy on any of us, but the same precautions still exist: wash your hands, remain socially distanced, wear your mask when you’re in indoor spaces, to name a few.”
Spending more time indoors as the temperature drops can make social distancing more of a challenge. Conducting self-assessments, especially before visiting family or friends, is one step people can take to protect themselves and others from seasonal viruses and COVID-19.
“Limiting your interactions when you feel ill whether that’s with the flu or COVID is important to keeping you and others safe,” she said.