Dr Rachel LaCount grabbed a metal hoop in a playground and circled with her 7-year-old son, turning the distant mesas of Colorado National Monument into a blur tinged with red.
LaCount has lived in Grand Junction, Colorado, a city of 64,000 people, most of his life. As a hospital pathologist, she knows better than anyone that her hometown has become one of the best breeding grounds in the country for the delta variant of COVID-19.
“The delta variant is super scary,” LaCount said.
This highly transmissible variant, first detected in India, is now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the USA. Colorado is among the best states with the highest proportion of the delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mesa County has the most cases of delta variants of any Colorado county, state health officials report, making the region a hotspot within a hotspot. A team from the CDC and the state epidemiologist traveled to Grand Junction to investigate how and why cases of the variant were moving so quickly in Mesa County.
At his hospital, LaCount ordered faster COVID tests as the number of cases increased. She saw the intensive care unit start to fill up with COVID patients, so hospital officials are putting two in a room against normal practices.
Despite these alarming signs, it appears many in Mesa County have let their guard down. The rate of fully immunized eligible residents has stagnated at around 42%. LaCount has noticed that few people wear more masks in the grocery store. Thousands of people recently flocked to Mack, 20 miles from Grand Junction, to witness the Country jam music festival, which could accelerate the spread of the variant in spectators’ hometowns.
“We’re doing national news for our COVID variant and the CDC is investigating here, but we have a huge festival where people don’t hide,” LaCount said. “Are we going to get collective immunity here just because everyone is going to get it? I mean, it’s probably going to happen at some point, but at what cost?”
LaCount’s concerns are not necessarily with herself or her spouse – they are both vaccinated – but for their son, who cannot be vaccinated because he is under 12 years old. She is reluctant to send it to school in the fall for fear of being exposed to the variant. She’s reluctant to take him to birthday parties this summer, knowing he’s highly likely to get teased for wearing a mask.
A few feet from LaCount and his son on the playground, a man was fishing in a quiet pond with his 10 month old daughter in a backpack. Garrett Whiting, who works in construction, said he believed COVID was still “being exaggerated”, particularly by the media.
“They scared everyone really, really fast,” said Whiting, slowly pulling a shimmering blue decoy out of the water. “There’s no reason to stop living your life just because you’re afraid of something.”
Whiting tested positive for COVID about three months earlier. He said he had no intention of getting the vaccine, and neither did his wife. As for the baby on her back, he said he’s not sure they’ll get her vaccinated when regulators approve the vaccine for young children.
Warnings from around the world
The delta variant is one of the four “worrisome variantscirculating in the United States, according to the CDC, because the delta strain spreads more easily, may be more resistant to treatment, and may infect those vaccinated better than other variants.
The delta variant has sounded alarm bells around the world. Parts of Australia have locked again after health officials said the variant had gone from an American crew to a birthday party where he infected all unvaccinated guests, and after that he would also have jumped between buyers in a “appallingly ephemeral“moment when two people passed each other in a shopping center.
Israel reissued an indoor mask requirement after a series of new cases linked to schoolchildren. A leader a health official said about a third of the 125 infected people were vaccinated and most of the new infections were delta variants.
An increase in delta variant cases delayed the UK’s planned reopening in June. But public health officials have concluded After studying about 14,000 cases of the delta variant in this country, full vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalization. Studies around the world made similar findings. There is also evidence of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the variant.
Los Angeles County recently recommended that residents resume wearing masks indoors, regardless of their immunization status, due to concerns over the delta variant. The World Health Organization is also urging vaccinated people to wear masks, although the CDC has not changed its guidelines allowing vaccinated people to congregate indoors without masks.
Delta surge hits the unvaccinated
The variant arrived in Mesa County this spring, when it accounted for just 1% of all cases nationwide, said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of public health for Mesa County.
“We were slowing down like everyone else. We were down to less than five cases a day. I think we had about two people hospitalized at one point,” Kuhr said. “We felt like we had come out of the woods.”
He’s even signed Country Jam, which bills itself as “the state’s biggest country music party.”
But in early May, the delta variant emerged in a burst, with five cases among adults working for the school district.
“It started to affect children, those who were not of age to be vaccinated,” says Kuhr. “It told me that, you know, wearing masks in school didn’t offer the protection with this new variant that it had before.”
The county then began to see groundbreaking cases in fully vaccinated elderly residents in long-term care facilities. Hospitals began to fill up again. Nine vaccinated people have died, including seven since the arrival of the delta variant, although it is still not clear whether the variant is to blame. All were at least 75 years old and seven lived in long-term care facilities. Now, Kuhr estimates, “over 90%” of cases in the county are delta variants.
The county is seeing the same trend as the state: the vast majority of people who test positive for COVID, and those hospitalized with, are not vaccinated. “It is a superpropagating variety if there is one”, Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institution told Scientific American. But he said people fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna vaccines “shouldn’t be at all worried.” There is less information about the protection offered by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Festival in a hotspot
Mesa County health officials considered canceling the music festival, but “it was really too late,” Kuhr said. After the announcement of the festival, around 23,000 people bought tickets.
Officials weighed in on an alcohol ban or attempt to have attendees vaccinated with a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the weeks leading up to the festival. Ultimately, they settled on messaging: signs warning people online and on the site that the area was a COVID hotspot.
According to CDC guidelines, outdoor events were low risk. A sporting event in late May in Grand Junction that filled a baseball stadium had resulted in only one known case, which made Kuhr optimistic.
“We put messages on Country Jam’s website and then on their social media pages, saying, you know, ‘Mesa County is a hot spot. Be prepared,’” Kuhr said.
A stormy Friday slowed down attendance at Country Jam concerts. But on the last day of the festival, the sun was shining and crowds of spectators in cowboy boots walked around the prairie dog burrows and raised gray-yellow dust on the path to the entrance to the room.
Many rejoiced at being able to attend a summer event like an open-air festival, seeing it as another sign that the pandemic was waning.
“COVID is over in Colorado,” said Ryan Barkley, a Durango student who played beer pong in an inflatable pool at his campsite outside the gates.
That day, 39 people in the county were hospitalized with COVID, and a CDC investigative team had arrived four days earlier.
Inside the gates, an open field was filled with stages, concession stands, and vendors selling cowboy hats, coffee mugs, and hunting gear – and crowds of people. Chelsea Sondgeroth and her 5-year-old daughter attended the scene.
“It’s just nice to see people’s faces again,” said Sondgeroth, who lives in Grand Junction and previously had COVID. She described it as one of the mildest illnesses she has ever had, although her senses of taste and smell have not returned to normal. Watermelon tastes rotten to her, beer tasted like Windex for a while, and her daughter said Sondgeroth couldn’t smell some flowers anymore.
Sondgeroth said she waits to get the shot until more research is published.
Standing in line at the daiquiri stand, Alicia Nix was one of the few prominent people to wear a mask. “I’ve had people say, you know, ‘This thing’s over. Pick yourself up and take this off,'” said Nix, who is vaccinated. “It is not finished.”
Amidst music, beer and dancing, a bus turned into a mobile vaccination clinic was empty. A nurse on duty played Jenga with an Army National Guard soldier. Only six of the thousands present were vaccinated on the bus.
“You can lead a horse to the watering hole, but you can’t make it drink,” Nix said behind his blue surgical mask.