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Ann Montgomery stands outside her vehicle as she receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-through clinic on Feb. 13. (Chancey Bush, The Gazette)

COVID-19 incidence and positive test rates in El Paso County are climbing despite reaching vaccination milestones, health officials cautioned Thursday.

The percentage of positive results among those tested, which hovered between 5% and 6% for weeks, is now at nearly 7% -- the highest it has been since late January, the health department reported Thursday. A rate of 5% or less is the recommended level for opening communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Our metrics are trending in the wrong direction right now, moving us further away from Level Blue,” Fadi Youkhana, epidemiologist for El Paso County Public Health, said, referring to the state's color-coded system of pandemic restrictions. El Paso County remains in the Yellow level, which is more restrictive than Blue.

The average number of daily cases in the past seven days is 167, up from 164 on Wednesday, the health department noted. 

Additionally, the county now leads Colorado with the highest number of confirmed cases of two highly infectious variant strains of COVID-19, state health data show.

El Paso County has 144 of Colorado’s nearly 900 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 strain first discovered in the United Kingdom, according to the state health department. Of the state’s 328 cases of the B.1.427.429 “California” variant, 46 are in El Paso County.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the county are down in recent weeks, with 28 admissions and one death between March 25 and March 31.

The county health department has given 257,558 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and has fully vaccinated 101,778 residents, according to the release.

Statewide, more than 1 million people have been fully vaccinated against the virus, state officials announced Thursday.

“It’s great news to reach this milestone,” said Scott Sherman, Brigadier General of the Colorado National Guard and director of the UCC Vaccine Joint Task Force. “Each vaccine is a step toward getting back to normal -- but we can’t stop now. We are focused on ensuring that every Coloradan who wants a vaccine will be able to receive the first dose by the end of May.”

Vaccine eligibility will be expanded Friday to include all members of the general public ages 16 and older.

The state and county health departments are calling for patience as high demand may hamper the appointment process.

El Paso County health officials stressed that getting tested is the best way to help monitor the spread of the virus and encouraged residents take advantage of one of the four free testing sites, especially for people with symptoms or who were recently exposed to someone who is positive.

“While we are making great strides in vaccination with more than 100,000 El Paso County residents fully vaccinated and more than a quarter million doses administered, we urge our community to continue to practice prevention measures such as wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and washing hands frequently,” Youkhana said. “These measures will remain critical until all community members have the opportunity to get vaccinated.”   

County residents looking for a COVID-19 vaccine provider in El Paso County can visit the health department’s provider page, call 2-1-1, or text “vaccine” (for English) or “vacuna” (for Spanish) to 667873.

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