Coronavirus cases in Arapahoe County are beginning to trend down after an uptick over the past several weeks that moved the county into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's worst COVID category.
For the week of June 12, the seven-day rolling average for cases was 1,387, according to data from the Tri-County Health Department, which provides health services to Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties.
Come Dec. 31, Tri-County will disband after Douglas County commissioners voted to split from the agency last year over masking policies and an inability to opt-out from health orders. The three counties plan to stand up their own health departments.
Arapahoe County's case count is a noticeable decrease from the past four weeks, when seven-day rolling averages neared almost 2,000, approaching levels close to the county's third-highest peak in November 2021.
Case counts are still well below the record surge the county saw in January when the Omicron variant caused a peak seven-day rolling average of 8,621 cases for the week of Jan. 30., the most cases reported during the course of the pandemic.
Still, current case counts are high enough — and hospital staffing low enough — to keep the county at a high community level for COVID based on CDC metrics, which rank counties as low, medium or high.
According to the CDC, residents of counties with a high community level are encouraged to wear masks in public and to stay at home if feeling sick.
But this won't result in any mask mandates for Arapahoe County, according to Dr. John Douglas, Tri-County Health's executive director.
“We do think that we are beginning to experience a downturn," Douglas said. "Although there are a couple caveats."
The rise of at-home testing could mean that people who are sick are not always reporting cases to the state's health department, said Douglas, who added that case counts may be about 50% less accurate now compared to late December and early January.
“We know that reported tests … is probably an undercount," Douglas said, adding that hospitals are also not testing as regularly compared to other points of the pandemic.
The ambiguity around the prevalence of the virus comes as the percentage of available staffed ICU beds in north-central Colorado hospitals falls below 10% — a critical benchmark — as of June 21.
Counties defined as north-central are Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver and Jefferson.
“Fortunately, death rates have gone down dramatically as vaccinations have been going on," Douglas said, though he added Arapahoe County may see more hospitalizations following its rise in cases.
Vaccinations remain a key line of defense against the virus, said Douglas. Everyone over the age of 5 is eligible to receive a booster shot once they have completed their primary vaccination, which includes receiving either one shot of the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine or two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
Arapahoe County has a vaccination rate of 78.8%, which includes people aged 5 or older who have received at least one shot.
“I keep hoping that some part of that unvaccinated group is going to decide (to get vaccinated),” Douglas said. “But I’m not holding my breath hoping we get a whole lot higher than 80%."
The CDC also recently cleared the way for Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for children who are 6 months to 5 years old after it received approval from the FDA.
But the rollout has been slow and early national polling shows most parents are still hesitant to have their youngest children immediately vaccinated.
A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that fewer than one in five parents said they would have their child vaccinated as soon as they can.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the tide-turner," Douglas said of the vaccine's impact on COVID trends.
Along with vaccination, appropriate mask-wearing and treatment for those who are sick will be vital for mitigating COVID's severity as Colorado, and much of the country, declare the virus "endemic."
And even as cases and deaths remain lower than past surges, the effects of long-COVID are beginning to reveal another aspect of the pandemic's toll. Douglas said a recent CDC report found that between 20% and 25% of infected people will have symptoms for a month or longer.
“More and more, people are understanding the fact that we’re going to be living with COVID for a long time," Douglas said.