Wastewater testing shows increases in COVID-19 virus, variants in Larimer County

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Wastewater testing indicates Larimer County could be headed for another increase in COVID-19 cases.

Results from Thursday showed an increase in COVID-19 viral load throughout Fort Collins and Loveland, Larimer County Health Director Tom Gonzales told the Larimer County commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting. 

The increase is “fairly significant,” Gonzales said, matching the increase of cases the county saw during in January.

“I want to alert the community, we’re not out of this tunnel,” Gonzales said. 

Wastewater testing is used statewide as an early indicator for potential COVID-19 outbreaks. Colorado State University has also been conducting wastewater testing to identify potential coronavirus outbreaks in on-campus housing before the virus has a chance to spread.

The testing has also identified COVID-19 variants, Gonzales said, including the more contagious variant first detected in the United Kingdom. 

COVID-19 latest:Larimer County and Colorado case, vaccine and hospital data for February 2021

The variant is about 30% to 50% more transmissible than the first strain of the virus. Gonzales said it took three to four months for the variant to become the dominant strain in the UK, which is concerning for local health officials.

COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations usually increase five to 10 days after wastewater testing shows an increase, Gonzales said.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t trend back up with what what we’re seeing with the wastewater,” Gonzales said. “We’re really asking everyone to please take this very seriously.”

Larimer County’s COVID-19 metrics have been plateauing or decreasing over the past few weeks, Gonzales said. As of Tuesday morning, fewer than 20 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the county. 

Cases in the county have plateaued at about 140 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, Gonzales said, which shows that “we’re still in this.”

He attributed fewer hospitalizations to successful vaccine distribution, especially in older residents. As of Tuesday morning, nearly 67% of Larimer County residents age 70 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Cases in long-term care facilities are also down 90% from their peak in December, Gonzales said.

While the county continues vaccine distribution, Gonzales reminded residents to continue all the safety measures they’ve been asked to follow for almost a year now: Wear masks, social distance from others outside your household, wash hands frequently and “keep your bubble small.”

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“I know we’re tired of this. I’m tired of it myself,” Gonzales said. “But we want to make sure we don’t have another wave while we’re trying to vaccinate everyone.”

In the past month, new cases for those age 65 and older has shrunk, thanks largely to the vaccines, Gonzales said. The age group with the most new coronavirus cases is currently ages 18-24.

Wastewater testing has shown concentrated areas where the viral load is highest, specifically around CSU and in the West Elizabeth Street area, county health department spokesperson Katie O’Donnell said during Tuesday’s meeting.

O’Donnell said the county is working with apartment complexes and landlords in the those areas to encourage residents to follow public health guidelines and get tested for COVID-19 to prevent the virus from spreading.

Gonzales said the county health department is also working closely with CSU and Front Range Community College to target messaging at the 18-24 age group. 

“It has been a tough, tough road for our youth,” Gonzales said. “… I just applaud them for all the work they’re doing. And please hang on for a few more months.”

Sady Swanson covers public safety, criminal justice, Larimer County government and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.