As new COVID-19 cases continue to surface in Lake County due to the highly contagious omicron variant, St. Vincent Health is facing staff shortages, causing a temporary suspension of the hospital’s free drive-up testing clinic. Local health officials are also urging that the general public get vaccinated.
On Monday, Jan. 3, the Lake County Public Health Agency (LCPHA) reported 22 new local cases of COVID-19. Over the last few weeks, new cases have occurred almost daily. Lake County is currently reporting more cases than this time last year, when practices like mask-wearing were more commonplace.
So far, just over 80 percent of Lake County’s population is fully immunized and about 73 percent have received one dose of a vaccination. A significant number of individuals have also received a third dose, although LCPHA Director Colleen Nielsen said she does not have county data on the number of individuals who have received a booster.
Nielsen added that while breakthrough cases are occurring, roughly 70 percent of the new cases are among unvaccinated populations. Despite a rise in case numbers, Nielsen said Lake County has not experienced a recent outbreak event, which is defined by five confirmed cases in a facility or non-household group.
According to data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Lake County has confirmed one positive case of the omicron variant, which is spreading rampantly in urban areas like Denver. “Just because it hasn’t hit the lab yet doesn’t mean it’s not here,” said Nielsen, who advised that rapid tests, which are largely used in Lake County, might not detect the omicron variant.
As cases increase and the omicron variant spreads, Lake County residents are scrambling to find tests. An employee at Safeway said the grocery store ran out of take-home tests more than a week ago with no indication of when more will arrive. Communities throughout Colorado, particularly in rural areas, have faced similar shortages.
St. Vincent Health (SVH) has also seen a dramatic increase in individuals seeking tests through the hospital’s drive-up clinic, which opened in August as a free site for testing. At the time, SVH saw 25 to 50 people a day at the drive-up clinic, according Karen Onderdonk, chief branding officer for SVH. In recent weeks, the hospital has seen more than 100 a day.
“As the volume of people requesting tests grew and staffing decreased, the clinic could no longer accommodate unscheduled testing appointments, though our commitment to testing remains strong,” said Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger, chief medical officer for SVH.
Onderdonk added that three employees worked the drive-up clinic until two of them entered quarantine after an exposure to COVID-19. SVH then closed the clinic on Dec. 31. Now, faced with staffing shortages that plagued the hospital even before the recent surge in cases, SVH extended the closure from Jan. 4 to Jan. 10.
Once reopened, the clinic will require appointments for testing, which were not a requirement in the past. According to Onderdonk, appointments will be available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday mornings from 8 to 11 a.m. Any vaccine or booster appointments scheduled during the clinic closure will still take place.
LCPHA recently administered new guidance on quarantine practices after being exposed to COVID-19, which SVH has adopted. Unvaccinated individuals, those who were fully vaccinated over six months ago or individuals who have not received a booster dose are advised to quarantine for five days and to test on day five. Those unable to quarantine should wear a mask for 10 days. Fully immunized individuals with a booster dose are advised to wear a mask for 10 days.
Individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 are advised to stay home for five days and separate themselves if living with others. After five days and no recognizable COVID-19 symptoms, individuals are able to leave their home. LCPHA also advises that individuals who have tested positive wear a mask for five additional days after quarantining.
“I’m thankful we are not seeing the same rise in cases that Eagle and Summit counties are seeing,” said Nielsen, who advised caution for those who work in those counties, where indoor mask mandates have resurfaced. “But we all still need to do our part to protect our neighbors and community.”