COVID-19 Forecast for El Paso County — May 17
Plus, our resident microbiologist on national herd immunity
Good morning, and happy Monday. On this pandemic date last year, Colorado College students had just completed Block 8, which was the second remote class they would have to take during the COVID-19 pandemic. (This year, Block 8 is ending a bit later than it did last year, in part because J Block, which was created during the pandemic, caused Block 5 to begin later this year.)
Today, Phoebe Lostroh returns to give her weekly COVID-19 forecast for El Paso County and to explain the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks or practice social distancing unless otherwise required. Lostroh is a professor of molecular biology at Colorado College on scholarly leave who is serving as the program director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation.
➡️ICYMI: On Wednesday, we explained how Llamapalooza staff created a COVID-safe music festival. Also, how professors were able to teach lab and field study classes during the pandemic.
NOTES: These forecasts represent her own opinion and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation or Colorado College. She used the public El Paso County dashboard for all data. Lostroh prepared these forecasts on May 15.
⚖️ How her predictions last week shaped up: May 15 is the last day of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report week 19 in the national public health calendar. It is the 62nd week since the first case was detected in El Paso County. Since March 13, 814 El Paso County residents have died of COVID-19. Last week, Lostroh predicted between 1,635 and 1,823 new cases in El Paso County for the week ending May 13. There were actually 1,700 cases.
Cumulative reported cases in El Paso County with predictions
🗝️ Key points: Reported cases are in black circles while the red, grey, light blue, and blue symbols provide estimates based on curve-fitting for the most recent 21, 14, and seven days. For the week ending May 20, Lostroh predicts 1,776-1,907 new cases in El Paso County.
Rolling seven-day cumulative incidence in El Paso County with predictions
🗝️ Key points: The actual calculated incidence is in black Xs, while the red, gray, light blue, and blue symbols provide estimates based on curve-fitting for the most recent 21, 14, and seven days. The purple, orange, yellow, and blue lines at the top of the graph show when El Paso County had orange and yellow safety precautions in effect, and when the 5 Star State Certification Program and state mask mandate went into effect. The purple, yellow, and red-dotted lines show the CDC’s thresholds for risk categories. As of May 16, the incidence per 100,000 people in El Paso County over the last seven days was 199.3.
Seven-day rolling percent positivity compared with daily percent positivity in El Paso County
🗝️ Key points: The seven-day rolling percent positivity for nasopharyngeal tests for viral nucleic acids is plotted in dark blue diamonds, while the daily percent positivity is plotted in open light blue diamonds. The purple, yellow, and red-dotted lines show the thresholds for the CDC’s risk categories. As of May 16, the percent positivity in El Paso County was 6.5%.
New COVID-19 hospitalizations compared with the regional census of hospitalized COVID-19 patients
🗝️ Key points: Daily hospitalizations are plotted in blue using the left-hand axis, while the census of regional hospitalized COVID-19 patients is plotted in red on the right-hand axis. As of May 16, the seven-day average daily hospital admissions in El Paso County was at around 5.5.
COVID-19 vaccinations in El Paso County
🗝️ Key points: The El Paso County vaccine dashboard tracks county vaccine distribution. The number of people who have been partially or fully vaccinated in El Paso County is indicated with purple symbols. El Paso County has administered a total of 473,493 doses. Some of those doses were the first shot someone received, while others were the second shot to complete the vaccine series. As of May 16, 219,317 people have received both shots and thus have completed the immunization series.
“The rate of people getting their second shot has surpassed the rate of people getting their first one,” Lostroh said. “The pace of newly-immunized people will probably increase for a few weeks as parents seek inoculation for their 12-15-year-old children.”
Q-and-A with Lostroh: Our resident microbiologist on children being eligible for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CC COVID-19 Reporting Project: Last week, the United States Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in adolescents ages 12 to 15. What do you think the primary effects of this authorization will be for American children?
Lostroh: There’s disagreement in the scientific literature about whether COVID-19 spreads from children to adults, and the extent to which you can count clusters at schools as being related to transmission caused by children. There seems to be clear evidence of children ages 12 to 18 transmitting the infection among each other, so I think that with the kids being able to get vaccinated, those children and their families will be much safer than the other children and other families. And I also think that it will probably reduce transmission — we’re at the point now where if we wanted to make a really accurate model of predicting the future, we’d have to start taking into account the percentage of people who have been vaccinated. The transmission rate of the virus has to be pretty high to overcome 40-60% of people vaccinated, so my hope is that 25% of the Colorado Springs population is people under the age of 18. I don’t know what percentage of them are between the ages of 12 and 18, but I’m hoping a significant chunk of those kids will be vaccinated and then that will really help us reduce the rate of transmission and really stop viral evolution.
CCRP: Last Thursday, the CDC also announced that Americans that have been completely vaccinated against COVID-19 ‘no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting’ that doesn’t otherwise require them to. What will that announcement mean for viral spread in Colorado, and throughout the U.S?
Lostroh: I think that it probably is relatively safe for people who have been vaccinated and have waited the full length of time to get the full immune response to kick in to not wear masks when they are in non-crowded indoor and outdoor situations. It’s safe for them, but I think that announcing that people who are vaccinated don’t have to wear masks anymore is going to mean that people who are not vaccinated are also going to stop wearing their masks. And so I don’t think that’s going to turn out to have been a wise decision. I think it’s going to cause more spread of COVID-19 among the people who have not yet been vaccinated. Now at the same time, there are some places in the U.S. where a much higher proportion of adults have been vaccinated compared with El Paso County. So I think one issue about mask wearing — and in fact this issue affects all aspects of the pandemic — is that the pandemic is happening on local levels, where conditions are really different depending on the local circumstance. Our cases are elevated here in El Paso County and we know that El Paso County has been resistant to all kinds of measures established to protect us from COVID-19 and that El Paso County has a lot of people who are politically invested in believing that COVID-19 is not something we should be worrying about, and so I think that the consequences for our county are going to be different than the consequences for Denver County, for example, or Boulder County. It’s just really too bad that instead of paying attention to local conditions, we’re just doing a blanket policy.
CCRP: Despite the rising population of people throughout the U.S. that have been completely vaccinated, some public health experts have come to the conclusion that national herd immunity is unlikely. To what extent do you agree with that statement, given your research on the local pandemic in El Paso County, and do you think that schools like CC that are planning to have a fully vaccinated campus through vaccine requirements can create a bubble of herd immunity within their local communities?
Lostroh: I think that the predictions based on whether we will get to herd immunity in the U.S. are very consistent with what we’re seeing in El Paso County, which is that it is incredibly unlikely that we will get to levels of immunization that are necessary for full herd immunity, even including the children who will get vaccinated. What I’ve seen in the last two weeks is that the number of new people getting vaccinated for their first shot is going way down compared with weeks ago, whereas the people who are getting their second shot and completing the series are still going up. And so what we’re seeing is that people who’ve opted into vaccination are finishing their course, and we’re gonna have all of them vaccinated pretty soon because we have enough vaccines. And then I think what we’re going to see is the children who are related to those people are now going to get vaccinated in our county, but we’re going to get to the point where the rest of the children are in families where the adults don’t want to be vaccinated and don’t want their kids to be vaccinated, so I think we are not going to get to herd immunity in El Paso County anytime soon. And I think we have to make a pragmatic plan for how to operate here and how to be as safe and as clear as possible because I think CC is a source of information and leadership on scientific topics locally and in the Pikes Peak region. As for whether CC can become a bubble of herd immunity, it is a big question on our campus — ‘how much do we, who work at CC or who are enrolled at CC, interact with the rest of Colorado Springs?’ And really, we haven’t seen a lot of these cases spread from the community to us, or from us to the community, because we’ve been doing our bubble really effectively. So I actually have hope that CC is going to continue to be a safe place, and I think that probably 90-95% of students will get vaccinated. I think as far as the faculty, we’ll also see 90-95%. As far as the other staff who work on campus, I’m not sure, but if it’s going to be required, then I think people are going to suck it up and do it, so I think it’s going to be pretty safe to be on campus. But you know, it might not be so safe to go to a hockey game where the rest of the community is going to be, so I hope that we’ll still keep promoting vaccination in a variety of ways, like through classes that could help work on this issue of convincing more of the community to get vaccinated, or taking the vaccine into communities where people would like to be vaccinated but haven’t had a chance, like to the hockey games. What I’m hoping is that we as a college can show that vaccination is something to be proud of, and there’s no stigma associated with being vaccinated and moreover, we’d love to help anybody who wants help getting their vaccine.
About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project
The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is created by Colorado College student journalists Esteban Candelaria, Lorea Zabaleta, and Cameron Howell in partnership with The Catalyst, Colorado College’s student newspaper. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time.
The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community.