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Aspen High School students indicate concerns with COVID-19 in school

Clouds hang over Aspen High School on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archive

The current wave of COVID-19 cases in schools has made the student experience of the past few weeks feel “nerve-wracking,” said Gemma Goss, a senior at Aspen High School who is concerned about her exposure to the virus at school, as well as exposing family members to it when she gets home.

She isn’t alone in feeling that way, if a survey she conducted between Jan. 10 and 11 among more than three dozen classmates is any indication. Of 38 students who answered the question “Do you feel safe at school in regard to COVID?,” more than two thirds (26 students total) said, “No.”

A vast majority (33 students total, accounting for 86.8% of survey-takers) said they would “feel safer if there was a real online option at school.”

Stella McAniff, also a senior at Aspen High School, said there “technically” is an online option for students — the high school implemented Zoom or Google Meet options as of Jan. 5 after hundreds signed a petition for virtual learning accommodations at Aspen High.

But McAniff said she’s found that “it’s just really disorganized. … People have been told different things,” especially about who can use the online option and what counts for attendance records.

Initial communication about the online option noted that the option is only intended for students who are in COVID-19 isolation or quarantine, or are otherwise home sick, not students who want to mitigate their virus exposure. That was “frustrating” for Goss, who said she sees online classes as a way to avoid getting sick in the first place.

District will issue only some exposure notifications

Aspen School District announced it will not issue exposure notifications for each and every positive case of COVID-19 in the school community — only those where “there is a high likelihood of direct classroom transmission,” the district announced in an email Jan.14.

“With the numerous positive cases of COVID on campus and in the community, sending potential exposure notifications for each case is not sustainable,” the email states. “In addition, with the county unable to perform contact tracing, notifications might suggest the case originated at school, prompting alarm. Whether a positive case originated at school or elsewhere is often unknown in the current situation.”

Aspen High School principal Sarah Strassburger clarified in a series of emails late last week that “(a)ny student who is called out (either for illness or for preventative measures) is welcome to access online learning.”

But it still counts as an absence in the school attendance books, Strassburger wrote. The absence will only be excused if a student’s parents or guardians have called it into the school, whether the student is staying home because they’re sick or because they want to avoid virus exposure and getting sick in the first place, Strassburger wrote.

That wasn’t the case last year, when the entire district implemented a hybrid approach to learning that could accommodate entire classes and individual students who had to stay home due to COVID-19 exposure or symptoms. Every student would log on from a computer whether they were on campus or at home, both of which counted as “present.”

This year, the district is committed to in-person learning so long as it is possible, which is why “for attendance purposes, PRESENT means physically present,” Strassburger wrote. Only students attending virtually log on to class via a personal computer; students in the classroom can see and hear classmates attending online via a big screen, and both can see and hear one another as long as there aren’t any technical difficulties.

“The remote option is so that students do not lose instruction,” she added.

But some students, including those who want an online option, feel the current virtual offerings aren’t up to snuff, according to Goss’ survey.

Asked whether they “think the school’s online option has been effective,” 56.8% of the 37 students who answered the question answered “no.” Another 37.8% answered “yes,” indicating that they did think the current option has been effective, and a couple of students (accounting for 5.4% of responses) selected “other.” One survey-taker skipped the question.

Goss and McAniff said a return to more of last year’s hybrid model or another modified in-person/online approach might help address students’ concerns with both virus exposure and the efficacy of online learning without developing gaps in their attendance records.

“I thought that what they’re doing last year, towards the end of the year, was pretty effective, because it gave me the choice,” McAniff said.

“If you want to be fully present, I think you should be able to,” Goss added. “But I also think … we should have the option of being online (and being counted present). I don’t think it’s fair for immunocompromised people, people with older families, people who just don’t want to get sick.”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Local COVID-19 rate remains high, but omicron wave may be starting to wane

Transmission of COVID-19 in Pitkin County remains extremely high, with around 30% of local hospital workers out with the virus, public health officials said Thursday.

The omicron variant-caused incident rate in the county was 3,369 per 100,000 people in the past seven days as of Monday, with 668 cases — 598 residents and 70 out of county — in that time period, according to Pitkin County’s online COVID-19 dashboard. The county’s seven-day positivity rate was 41% during the same time period.

“Our incidence rate … is still one of the highest in the country at this point,” Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist, said after Thursday’s Board of Health meeting. “Really, the entire state is starting to be impacted. We’re kind of all in this together at this point.”

A lag in data reporting from the state public health department meant the full local COVID-19 picture wasn’t available Thursday, and that local transmission rates are likely even higher than the dashboard numbers indicate because at-home rapid test results are not included, Vance said.

“Everyone is probably being undercounted by quite a bit,” he said. “We’re about double where we were last year.”

State public health department modeling suggests the omicron wave may crest in the next couple days to a week, Vance said. Locally, the positivity rate — the number of people testing positive for the virus — has flattened and started to decrease slightly, which is a precursor to the transmission rate coming down, he said.

The highly contagious omicron wave has been expected to crest earlier than waves of previous variants.

Despite doubling the number of cases over last winter at this time, omicron has stayed true to form and not led to a local increase in hospitalizations or serious illness, Vance said. Two recent resident COVID hospitalizations included one delta variant case and another patient hospitalized for another reason who tested positive for the virus, he said.

The local hospitalization rate for COVID-19 patients during the delta wave from July to November was about 2.5%, while the same rate for the current omicron wave is 0.3%, Vance said.

Also, while more local children between 0 and 4 years old have tested positive for the virus recently, the rate of positivity in that age range has not increased, he said. There are simply many more cases of COVID-19 occurring.

Dr. Kim Levin, Pitkin County’s chief medical officer and an emergency room physician at AVH said the percentage of staff out with COVID-19 “shot up” during the omicron wave and caused the hospital to move to red or “concerning” when it comes to staffing. AVH is also operating under a red, or cautious, flag when it comes to daily visits by COVID-19 patients, she said.

Around 30% of the overall workforce at AVH has been out sick with COVID-19 since Dec. 28, though she said the numbers were starting to improve, Levin said.

“It’s just unbelievable how things have changed since our last (board of health) meeting,” she said.

Vance reiterated that the use of masks remains important to controlling spread of COVID-19. Even if someone is wearing a cloth mask — said to be less protective of viral spread — and they sneeze, they will spread much less of the virus than an unmasked sneeze, he said.

Studies have shown that people exposed to less viral load develop less serious symptoms less quickly, giving the body a chance to react initially to smaller dose of the disease. One study, for example, said the use of masks can reduce other people’s exposure by 10 times, Vance said.

He also sounded a cautionary note about antigen or rapid COVID-19 tests, which the Food and Drug Administration recently said might not be as sensitive to detecting the omicron variant. The tests apparently have a high false-negative rate and have caused some people who have tested negative to spread the virus to others when they were actually positive, Vance said.

“We’re really pushing for PCR confirmation of COVID-19 or not,” he said.

In a rare bit of good COVID-19-related news on that note, Roaring Fork Valley residents who submit to Microgen PCR tests may be likely to see quicker results in the near future. That means instead of having to send samples to Texas for processing, the lab will be able to handle 1,000 samples a day in the midvalley, said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director.

The local turnaround time has been averaging about two days, but the new lab is expected to cut that time to just 24 hours, she said.

“We’re really excited,” Sabella said. “It’s really helpful for people to get their results back sooner.”

Microgen tests are currently administered for free at testing sites behind the old Aspen City Hall, at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport and in Snowmass Village. In addition, they are also provided on a commercial basis at Roaring Fork Covid Test, which has 12 sites in the Roaring Fork Valley and Eagle River Valley.

Eagle County votes to end indoor mask mandate next week

Eagle County officials decided Thursday to drop an indoor mask mandate next week despite a high rate of incidence from the omicron variant of COVID-19.

The county commissioners, acting as the Board of Health, voted 3-0 to allow an existing mask mandate in public indoor spaces to expire Jan. 17 for adults and high school-aged kids. The mask mandate will expire for children age 3 through eighth grade on Jan. 21.

The Board of Health approved the most recent indoor mask mandate Dec. 17 through a public health order.

“I’m very excited about being able to get out of the public health order business,” commissioner Matt Scherr said.

Students and a teacher in an Aspen school wear masks at the beginning of the school year. Eagle County voted Thursday to end its mask mandate for public indoor spaces next week.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The expiration of the mask mandate will de-escalate a feud between the county and Cornerstone Christian School, located between Basalt and El Jebel. Pastor Jim Tarr, executive director of the school, has repeatedly told county officials that wearing of a mask is a decision for parents rather than county public health officials.

Eagle County sought a temporary restraining order to force Cornerstone to comply but eased off when it was clear a hearing wouldn’t be held prior to Christmas break at the school.

County attorney Bryan Treu said Thursday the health board’s action resolves the major portion of the dispute with the private school. He said he hopes to resolve a possible issue with reporting of COVID-19 test results with the attorney for the school. An Eagle County judge has scheduled a status conference in the case for Tuesday.

In its vote Thursday, the Board of Health approved the recommendations of public health director Heath Harmon. He advised keeping the mask mandate in place four extra days for younger kids to give parents time to make adjustments, such as getting vaccinations for their children.

“Some people in the community would ask why would you do it now when rates are still high?” Harmon said of the mask mandate expiration. He noted that vaccination rates in Eagle County are extremely high and that omicron appears to be less severe than other strains of the disease.

But just as there has been confusion in the messaging by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19, Eagle County’s adopted stance also runs the risk of sending a confusing message.

“We still are going to recommend highly the utilization of masks when you’re in indoor public settings, whether that’s a student, whether that’s an adult going into a grocery store,” Harmon said. “We’re still going to make that recommendation, but it’s just moving away from an actual requirement. (Masks) will still continue to play an important role as it relates to outbreaks, but wearing them while the outbreak is as high as it is still makes a lot of sense.”

Harmon suggested his recommendation was influenced by a desire to comprise.

“We as a community are still at a very polarized space relative to the virus.” — Heath Harmon, Eagle County public health director

“We as a community are still at a very polarized space relative to the virus,” he said. “We have some people who really want to have moved on from this (mandate) months ago, and we have others who don’t want to move on and have a lot of fear.

“I think what I wanted to do is help find ways to bring those two sides closer to center,” Harmon continued. “Realistically, with the immunity that we have in our community, we are prepared to take that step.”

Harmon said testing and taking appropriate steps when people test positive or are exposed will still be a big part of the effort to reduce COVID-19 rates. He said his department would continue to work with “partners” such as schools and businesses on appropriate quarantine rules for people who are exposed to someone with COVID-19. Isolation for five days remains a requirement for people who test positive, he said.

“Isolation is one piece I don’t see going away,” Harmon said.

Roughly a dozen people spoke at the Board of Health meeting. While Eagle County’s move to let the mask mandate expire was applauded, some speakers vented frustrations that the mandate was ever in place while others criticized what they labeled confusing information from Eagle County public health.

Jill Edinger, an attorney with small children in child care in the Roaring Fork Valley, was extremely agitated with quarantine rules that she said make no sense.

“I come to you as a mother, and I am at my breaking point,” Edinger told the commissioners.

Her main complaint was that a household with two children in the same day care facility could have one child sent home in quarantine because of an exposure in their school group while another child from the same household isn’t required to quarantine because they are in a different group.

“I am breaking at the seams because of these policies that are confusing, they cause friction in our school community among our friends, and they make no sense,” Edinger said. “They may have been defensible in the spring of 2020 when we didn’t know what this thing was. They are not defensible anymore.”

She urged the county to end the quarantines and said she won’t comply with them any longer.

“I’m dropping my kid off in Heath Harmon’s office next time there is a quarantine so I can go to work, and I mean it,” Edinger said.

Michelle Oger, executive director of Blue Lake Preschool, said Eagle County’s directives haven’t been clear. It puts the preschool staff in a “bad situation” to have to interpret the county’s information because parents get confused and agitated, she said.

Going forward, the county should be clear on what is an order and what is a guideline, Oger said.

While he didn’t respond directly to that request, Harmon said flexibility in rules would be vital until COVID-19 eases.

“We’re going to have to live with the ebb and flow of the spread,” Harmon said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Wheeler cancels ‘Choir of Man’ and weekend events

Citing staff illness, the Wheeler Opera House has canceled its Thursday night performance of “The Choir of Man” and Friday night’s Wintersköl program of “Aspen History 101” and “Aspen Extreme.”

Wheeler executive director Lisa Rigsby Peterson said a staffer on the city-owned theater’s team of 14 called in sick on Thursday morning, prompting the cancellations.

“We have such a small staff that if we have one person who’s not able to work due to illness, we can’t successfully or safely execute performances,” Rigsby Peterson explained. “Particularly one as large as ‘Choir of Man.’”

She said she is working to reschedule a performance from the popular touring musical, as early as this spring.

The cancellation news came two days after the Aspen City Council instated more robust COVID-19 protocols for the Wheeler, in response to the record levels of local coronavirus infection due to the fast-spreading omicron variant of the virus. The Wheeler will soon require proof of a negative test taken the same day as an event. It had previously required results from within 72 hours. Additionally, the Wheeler may limit capacity and input social distancing measures at future events.

As the omicron outbreak hit Aspen in December, the Wheeler also canceled three events between Christmas and New Year’s Eve — traditionally among the busiest programming times there.

The theater is expected to resume normal operations next week. Its next Wheeler-produced event is an Aspen Gay Ski Week event with Bob the Drag Queen on Thursday, Jan. 20.

City of Aspen to require same-day testing at Wheeler for unvaccinated

Aspen City Council decided Tuesday anyone who is unvaccinated wants to go into the Wheeler Opera House must have a negative COVID test the same day as their event.
Aspen Times file photo

In order to enter the Wheeler Opera House for a performance, patrons who cannot prove they are vaccinated will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test that is taken the same day that they enter the facility.

Aspen City Council on Tuesday approved the policy change, which is a deviation from the current requirement of proof of either full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of attendance.

All staff, performers and attendees are still required to wear masks in the city-owned building.

The same-day negative test requirement is in response to the current rapid increase in Covid cases in the city, as well as the apparent greatly shortened transmission time after exposure, said Lisa Rigsby Peterson, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House.

The new protocol can be implemented as soon as seven days.

“The change from a 72-hour negative test to a same-day negative test is proposed as the next layer of protection during a time of high transmissibility within our community to allow the Wheeler to remain open and serve the public,” she wrote in a memo to council.

She also asked and received from council the flexibility to limit attendance at Wheeler events through socially-distanced seating measures to roughly 50% of regular capacity during this period of rapid growth in positive cases.

“We believe that with these two changes to our COVID protocols we can continue to remain open and keep people as safe as we possibly can,” she told council Tuesday during its regular meeting. “We really feel as if remaining open for the Wheeler is something that is good for our community, whether it’s celebrating Winterskol or having Aspen History 101 and Aspen Extreme on Friday night, whether it’s being open for physics lectures, our Metropolitan Opera screenings, all of those things are really important now.”

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she not only supported same-day testing but would go further and require all people in the Wheeler to be vaccinated, much like the Aspen Skiing Co. is doing in some of its buildings and other venues in town.

She noted that recently in Canada proof of vaccination became a requirement to enter liquor and marijuana stores, and as a result, people seeking vaccinations shot up to something like 400%.

“I think if they made a vaccine requirement on airline travel we wouldn’t be having quite the problems we’re having yet again,” Richards said.

Since the enactment of additional public health safety measures last fall, the Wheeler Opera House has hosted thousands of patrons to public events, Rigsby Peterson noted.

The protocols dictated in the emergency administrative order that went into effect on Oct. 8 have been effective, as no known transmission cases have been attributed to performances at the Wheeler — other than an internal cast transmission from artist to artist during a rental event, which did not affect staff nor patrons, she said.

“Mask wearing compliance has been excellent, and vaccination and negative test verifications have been met with nearly universal good will and compliance by the public,” Rigsby Peterson wrote.

Based on recent experience, Rigsby Peterson said the majority of Wheeler patrons are fully vaccinated and the new same-day testing policy will impact few people.

The bar in the opera house’s lobby will remain closed, as it has been since August.

“When our advisory board and then council directed us in September to require mask wearing at all times during public events at the Wheeler, there was no way to reconcile selling food and drinks and requiring people to be masked at all times,” Rigsby Peterson told The Aspen Times via email. “Preventing the spread of COVID in every way possible is a responsibility we are taking very, very seriously.”

She added that with the emergence of the omicron variant in New York City, Broadway houses also are closing all concessions in their theaters for the same reason.

There is minimal loss in revenue in shutting down concessions, as they are mostly a patron amenity and a majority of sales occur 10 minutes before a show and during a typical 15-minute intermission, Rigsby Peterson said.

The financial impact from changes approved Tuesday by council likely will be in the form of foregone ticket revenue at reduced capacity performances.

The Wheeler staff feel that the ability to remain safely open as a community resource outweighs the temporary reduction in ticket revenue, particularly in light of the alternative of no revenue at all, Rigsby Peterson said.

The policy shift might have a financial impact to attendees if they are paying for same-day testing, and that could mitigated by the soon-to-open local processing laboratory for same-day PCR test results for all free COIVD-19 testing locations in the valley, according to Rigsby Peterson.

As has been true since this past October, the opportunity to receive a rapid test on the Wheeler parcel for a $25 fee will continue to be available to patrons prior to scheduled performances.

The new protocols for the Wheeler are designed to operate in as safe a manner as possible and help to prevent another shutdown as experienced in 2020 and early 2021.

An alternative could have been to shut down the Wheeler again, which would result in canceling performances and missing out on rental revenue.

Aspen School District adapts policies as student COVID case counts follow wave of county surge

An Aspen School District bus parked in front of Aspen Middle School on Wednesday, August 26, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

As Pitkin County goes, so goes the school system — with COVID-19 case numbers, anyway.

A recent surge in local cases in Pitkin County also made for a relatively proportional bump in case counts among school-aged children and an uptick in teacher and staff cases, according to Pitkin County Public Health’s COVID-19 data dashboards.

Much-higher-than-usual case counts bookended a holiday week with the highest number of student cases this academic year. The county recorded 18 student cases the week of Dec. 19-25, followed by 37 student cases the week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1 and 12 student cases the week of Jan. 2-8. The vast majority of those cases were contracted due to exposure outside of school or child care settings. (Most students were on winter break when those stats were recorded; the numbers account for all school-aged kids in Pitkin County, not just those in the Aspen School District.)

Pitkin County student case counts averaged a little more than five cases per week from Aug. 22 through Dec. 18.

High case counts, district quarantine policies, concerns about the long-term health effects of the virus and looming final exams prompted Aspen High School students to organize a successful online petition for more virtual learning options last week.

Students hoped more virtual options would ensure they wouldn’t miss out on “a crucial week of studying” before finals and could choose a learning option that might be “necessary for their health and peace of mind.”

The petition garnered more than 250 supporters in a single day (the total count by midday Jan. 9 was 286) and was shared with high school principal Sarah Strassburger. As of Jan. 5, teachers had posted Zoom or Google Meet links for their classes on the learning management system Schoology, she wrote.

The virtual option is intended for students who feel well enough to attend class but who need to stay home in isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 or another illness, according to Strassburger. The technology was available all year but wasn’t universally implemented until last week in response to the recent spike in cases and concerns from students.

“Once we realized the impact of omicron on our students and their ability to attend school, teachers were happy to get these links up and students Zooming into classes,” Strassburger wrote.

At this point, all classes in the school district remain primarily in-person, though staffing shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 case numbers mean that “online schooling could become a very real possibility, for at least a little while,” according to a Dec. 31 school health and safety update from the district.

There were 13 teacher/staff cases recorded in the county between the first week of school and Dec. 18, then eight more in the past three weeks, according to the county’s data dashboard. (As with student case counts, those stats account for all teachers and staff in the county, not just those in the district.)

District Director of Human Resources Amy Littlejohn said on a Friday phone call that a “fairly healthy” substitute teacher pool — “healthy” in terms of both a lack of COVID-19 cases and in overall headcount — has helped ensure classroom coverage so far.

The pool includes about 80 active substitutes. However, most substitute between one and five days per month and far fewer tend to pick up shifts at the high school than at the elementary and middle schools, resulting in “many unfilled substitute vacancies” at the high school, Littlejohn wrote in a Jan. 12 email.

Littlejohn also expressed hopes in the phone interview last week that COVID-19 cases come in rounds rather than all at once.

“We’re kind of holding our breath and hoping that we’re going to be able to keep the lights on with with the current guidance and have everyone stay home while they’re sick and then bring them back as soon as we can and then anticipate there might be other people going out,” Littlejohn said.

“As soon as we can” just got a bit sooner, too: Students, teachers and staff in kindergarten through 12th grade only have to isolate for five days if they test positive and are asymptomatic or only have mild illness and symptoms are resolving, the district announced in a Jan. 7 school health and safety update.

The policy aligns with new isolation guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just before the new year. The district was still following a 10-day isolation policy for the first week back at school because the five-day rule did not yet apply to schools; the CDC updated its K-12 guidance Jan. 6.

Continued masking is still required for the five days after the shortened isolation period, according to the CDC. The district already has a universal indoor mask mandate in place.

There is no requirement for a negative test to return to school after a positive COVID-19 case, but the district communications noted that testing is “highly recommended.”

The district can administer free rapid antigen tests to students or staff who want or need one as long as supplies are available. District nurse Robin Strecker is overseeing those tests for students, and the human resources department is overseeing those tests for staff, Littlejohn said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that while the overall pool of substitutes for Aspen School district is “healthy” with 80 active subs on hand, many substitute between one and five days per month and fewer of those substitutes pick up jobs at the high school than the middle and elementary schools, according to a series of Jan. 12 emails from Director of Human Resources Amy Littlejohn. In turn, the high school has experienced a high rate of unfilled substitute vacancies.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County’s transmission rate among highest in country as omicron wave peaks

A new method of reporting positive COVID-19 cases has slingshot Pitkin County’s incidence rate to one of the highest in the state and nation Tuesday, with the current omicron surge expected to last as many as two more weeks, officials said.

“We’re reporting more cases now than we’ve ever reported (since the pandemic began in March 2020),” Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist, said Tuesday. “(Omicron) has a much higher case count than other variants.”

Based on what other countries have seen with omicron, the wave lasts between three and four weeks after the initial surge, which began Dec. 19 in Pitkin County, Vance said. That means Pitkin County was entering its third week of omicron Tuesday.

“We should peak around next week or a little after,” he said. “(After that) there’s so many infections, it loses the ability to infect additional hosts.”

Previous waves of other COVID-19 variants lasted about two months, Vance said.

Pitkin County on Tuesday began including a large number of positive cases from people who listed Pitkin County addresses but whose residency here public health officials were not able to confirm, said John Anderson, a county data analyst.

Previous analysis indicated that about 80% of those pending cases involved county residents, while 20% lived outside the county, so the county began including 80% of those numbers since Dec. 15, said Anderson and Suzuho Shimasaki, county deputy public health director.

That difference caused the county’s incidence rate to jump twofold, Anderson said. So incidence rate numbers that were around 1,000 to 1,200 per 100,000 residents last week — as reflected in the county’s online COVID-19 dashboards — rose into the 2,000s, according to the dashboards.

The new way of reporting the numbers provides a more accurate picture of the COVID-19 community transmission in Pitkin County, Shimasaki said.

Weekend numbers had not been posted online as of Tuesday evening, though the incidence rate as of Friday was 2,248 per 100,000. Pitkin County’s peak incidence rate occurred Dec. 29, when it hit 2,944, according to the dashboards.

That is one of the highest incidence rates in the state and the country, Vance said, comparable to other resort counties and major cities with high rates of tourism and mobility.

As of Friday, the county logged 438 new cases of COVID-19, including 399 residents and 39 out of county cases.

Vance said that while public health officials continue to see a few cases of the delta variant, more than 90% of the new cases have been omicron, and that number is rising.

The overall severity of cases caused by omicron locally have followed national and worldwide trends suggesting the variant causes a less severe form of the disease, he said. For example, between Sept. 15 and Nov. 30 — the end of Pitkin County’s delta wave — between 1-2% of cases required hospitalization. With omicron, 0.22% of cases have required a hospital stay of some length, Vance said.

The surge has meant that public health officials have not been able to interview or contact trace everyone who’s tested positive in the past two weeks, he said. Instead, officials have sent out surveys to those who test positive, which officials urged people to fill out and return.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Year in Review: After two years of COVID-19 pandemic, here we go again

 

Sara Reveal holds her daughter Scarlett, 7, with service dog Teddy in between them as Scarlett gets her vaccine shot at the Aspen High School Gymnasium vaccine clinic for children between the ages of 5 and 11 in Aspen on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. “It feels like there’s just a little light at the end of this tunnel,” said Reveal about her two children getting their vaccine shots. “I’m overwhelmed and so excited.” (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
GOODBYE, 2021; HELLO, 2022

This past week and into the first week of 2022, The Aspen Times is examine the issues and news events that defined the Aspen-area community in 2021, while also turning the lens to next year and what to watch for. Our 10-part series shows how the pandemic’s tentacles have and will continue to dip into our lives: skiing, tourism, development, mental health, labor shortages, business closings, housing shortages, a real estate boom, entertainment, and on and on.

As the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic dawns, Pitkin County residents and the rest of the world could be forgiven for feeling a bit of déjà vu all over again.

That’s because the winter of 2021-22, so far, looks a lot like the grim situation we confronted almost exactly a year ago, when virus cases exploded to the highest peak yet as people headed inside to seek shelter from the cold, though significant differences exist.

The onset of the omicron variant just before Christmas this year exploded new COVID-19 case numbers to nearly the same levels seen at the end of last year, though the new variant appeared to provoke far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than a year ago.

Still, with hospitals across the state struggling with more than 90% occupancy of ICU beds thanks to the delta variant wave — mostly because of unvaccinated residents — that began this summer, the pandemic seemed far from over.

“Pitkin County continues to be hit hard with incidence rates, but so far hospitalizations remain low,” Jon Peacock, county manager, said Thursday in a news release announcing the temporary closure of most publicly accessed county facilities until at least Jan. 17. “Like many employers in the Roaring Fork Valley, Pitkin County is experiencing a significant number of employees who are out because they are isolating or have been exposed.”

On the same day, Gov. Jared Polis announced he was activating more than 200 members of the Colorado National Guard to support statewide testing sites and other COVID-19-related needs starting Jan. 1.

“With the high prevalence of omicron in Colorado, we need to ensure Coloradans can access testing without long waits, enabling them to isolate, notify contacts and keep from spreading the virus to their loved ones,” Polis said in a news release. “This additional support will help Coloradans access testing this holiday weekend by reducing wait times at major free community testing locations.”

Pitkin County, along with other resort counties like Eagle, Summit and San Juan, first began to see the omicron explosion a little less than a week before Christmas. Prior to that, local public health officials were feeling hopeful about the pandemic future because case numbers in the county had dwindled — a Thanksgiving bump in cases never materialized — thanks to a mandatory indoor mask policy passed Sept. 16 by the Pitkin County Board of Health.

People gather at Paepcke Park to march against vaccine mandates on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Aspen. Called the "March for Medical Freedom," the event was inspired by vaccination policies adopted by Aspen businesses, some of which are requiring employees and/or customers to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

On Dec. 19, Pitkin County logged 53 new COVID-19 cases among residents in the previous seven-day period. By Dec. 25, that number shot up to 279 new resident cases in seven days, with a peak of 310 on Dec. 28, according to Pitkin County’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

And that didn’t count out of county cases, which added another 50 to 75 new cases to the seven-day total.

The corresponding incidence rates also shot through the roof, hitting a high of 1,746 per 100,000 people on Dec. 28.

New case rates appeared to be dropping slightly as 2022 approached, with 212 new cases among residents and 59 new out of county cases documented by local public health officials as of Dec. 30. That prompted an incidence rate of 1,194 per 100,000, according to the dashboard.

While Aspen Valley Hospital was operating under a red “concerning” flag because many essential health care workers were out with COVID-19 or symptoms, the prevalence of vaccines and booster shots had not yet led to increasing numbers of COVID patients needing to be hospitalized. As of Thursday, the hospital was under “cautious” status when it came to daily visits by COVID patients and ability to transfer patients needing a higher level of care.

In addition, the latest studies of omicron indicated the variant didn’t cause cases of COVID as serious as delta, most likely because it doesn’t attack the lungs in the same detrimental way.

Most of the concern surrounding COVID in 2021, however, had to do with the delta variant, which began to seriously impact Pitkin County about mid-July. Delta essentially elbowed all the other variants out of the way during the rest of the summer and fall, with many other parts of the state feeling the impact of the unvaccinated on already-strained hospitals.

Another notable milestone in 2021 occurred in early November, when the Centers for Disease Control recommended the Pfizer vaccine be given to children ages 5 and older.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County closing more facilities as COVID cases spike

More Pitkin County facilities are closing to the public starting Thursday as COVID cases continue to skyrocket in Aspen and the county as well as the influx of visitors, officials said Wednesday.

The county also is dealing with staffing issues because of infections or exposures, according to a news release sent Wednesday. Earlier this week the county asked its employees to work from home if they could. The omicron variant combined with high visitor traffic has driven local incident rates very high, officials said.

“Pitkin County continues to be hit hard with incidence rates, but so far hospitalizations remain low. Like many employers in the Roaring Fork Valley, Pitkin County is experiencing a significant number of employees who are out because they are isolating or have been exposed,” County Manager Jon Peacock said in the release. “Community members can access many services online or over the phone.”

The closures or operation changes will remain in effect until at least Jan. 17.

The Pitkin County administration building on Main Street is closed, but the departments are available by phone or online, including the Clerk’s Office, Human Services, Public Health, Community Development and Assessor’s Office. The Sheriff’s Department’s main office is closed to walk-ins.

The Public Works building is closed, and earlier this week the Pitkin County Library closed its doors. The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport as well as the landfill remain open with normal operations. The courthouse remains open, and any changes there would be up to the court system.

For more information on how to reach the departments, go to pitkincounty.com.

In a follow-up interview Wednesday, Peacock said via email the county is staying with the mitigation matrix the Pitkin County Board of Health adopted in November.

The list of triggers in the winter mitigation plan that were approved in November by the Pitkin County Board of Health.
Courtesy image

That states any possible shutdown would be based off pressure on Aspen Valley Hospital. Currently, AVH is in the “concerning” level (which is the highest level) for staffing because of infections or quarantining due to exposure, but its other measures of average daily visits/inpatient hospitalizations and transfer capacity remain in “cautious“ levels.

Hospital and public health officials meet every Wednesday afternoon, and AVH spokesperson Jennifer Slaughter said as of Wednesday evening there are no hospitalized patients due to COVID.

For a stay-at-home order to be put in place, the hospital would have to go to the “concerning” level in the capacity metric and then establish a “hospital crisis standards of care.” The scenario would mean the hospital is receiving more patients than it can care for or transfer out, and must decide who gets the precious ICU beds and ventilators available, Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said in November.

“We are in regular communication with AVH about their status, and while we are all stressed by the high incidence rates, and workers out, we remain cautiously optimistic we won’t have to move to additional capacity restrictions,” Peacock said Wednesday. “However, it would be really helpful, that likelihood is reduced by all of us doubling down on ensuring indoor masking and following the healthy best practices.”

Before a possible shutdown, the county would first enact indoor capacity limits to 50% or 100% vaccination verification (schools are excluded). Those measures would only be triggered if the hospital has to suspend elective surgeries.

Peacock also asked that visitors refresh themselves on the “Traveler Responsibility Code,” the mask mandates and where to get tested. That information can be found on the county’s COVID website.

The incident rate on Wednesday dropped to 1,504 cases per 100,000 residents, and the positivity rate was 31.2% as of Monday, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard. Over the weekend the incident rated topped 1,600.

City of Aspen buildings remain open, except Wheeler Opera House

While the city of Aspen-owned Wheeler Opera House has closed to the public this week due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, other municipal government-run buildings like the recreation center, ice garden and the Red Brick will remain open.

“The Wheeler is different from other city facilities and that all three of the different postponed shows were nearly sold out, so that could have been the largest gathering of people this week in Pitkin County, and theater seating is such that people are in close proximity for an extended period of time,” Assistant City Manager Diane Foster said Monday via email. “Although the Wheeler COVID protocols have been strictly enforced, where the COVID transmissibility and positivity rates are so high within our county we thought it was in the best interest of our community, employees and visitors to postpone.”

According to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 data dashboard, the county’s seven-day incident rate spiked at more than 2,000 per 100,000 residents over the holiday weekend. In the past two weeks, the incident rate has gone from 135 on Dec. 13 to 546 on Dec. 20 to 2,000 on Sunday. The case counts have gone from 24 on Dec. 13 to 97 on Dec. 20 to 268 on Sunday (and spiked at 278 on Dec. 24). The positivity rate has increased from 6.5% on Dec. 13 to 31.3% on Saturday.

All Pitkin County buildings remain open, including the popular library, deputy county manager Phyllis Mattice said Monday. The county is advising its employees to work from home for the next two weeks if their job allows “until we see what our case count is in the next couple of weeks,” she said.

Aspen senior staff also are encouraging employees who can work remotely this week, without an interruption to operations, to do so.

“If Pitkin County provides any updated guidance, we will comply,” Foster wrote.

Mattice said Monday county officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday morning to discuss the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest recommendations on quarantining. U.S. health officials on Monday cut isolation restrictions for those who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine, according to the Associated Press. As well, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment updated its guidance to match the CDC recommendations.

CDC officials said the guidance is in keeping with growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.

The Aspen Police Department has adjusted its front desk operations to be by appointment only, which includes VIN inspections. More information can be found at aspenpolice.com, or by calling 970-920-5400.

For more information on where to get tested or vaccinations locally, go to the county’s website at covid19.pitkincounty.org.