As Pitkin County nears 10,000 vaccine doses, officials emphasize vigilance

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” spokesperson says

on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

At Thursday afternoon’s Pitkin County Board of Health meeting, staff and officials had plenty to be hopeful for.

Thanks to two vaccine clinics last week, most of the county’s educators and essential workers are now fully vaccinated, as are seniors age 60 and older and people with two or more comorbidities, according to a vaccination update from Emergency Response and Epidemiology Administrator Carlyn Porter during the meeting.

Plus, the county is on track to begin administering vaccines to people in Phase 1B.4 on March 21, adding restaurant workers, people age 50 and older, and people with one or more comorbidity to the inoculation list; after that, it’s on to the general public.

The county has administered more than 9,800 doses so far across several sites, including Community Health Services, Aspen Valley Hospital and the Benedict Music Tent. With hundreds more jabs on deck at the music tent this week, the county will clear the 10,000-dose milestone by the end of a Friday clinic, testing and immunizations analyst Carly Senst confirmed in an email.

“We are doing such an amazing job, … and we’re well on our way,” county medical officer Kim Levin said during the meeting. “However, with this incredible news of hope and the vaccine as one of the most critical tools in combating this pandemic, there is a concern.”

The concern is driven by a number of factors — case counts, virus variants and large gatherings among them — that still weigh on the minds of local health officials.

Pitkin County case counts have averaged about eight positive tests per day for nearly a week, according to epidemiologist Josh Vance. The flatter curve comes after more than a month of rapid and steady decline earlier this year, then a slight uptick at the end of February.

The county is currently under yellow-level restrictions on the state’s COVID-19 dial, with a seven-day total case count of 66 — right in the middle of the state’s yellow range — and a blue-level positivity rate of 4.2% according to a March 11 daily epidemiology report.

The state recently changed its COVID dial metrics to allow counties with a population of fewer than 30,000 people to use a seven-day case count rather than incidence rate as a metric for restrictions; the change is particularly helpful in Pitkin County, where the census population used to calculate incidence rate — around 17,700 people — doesn’t account for visitors tested here nor for second homeowners who moved to the area full-time after the pandemic hit.

But this week has been busier for contact tracers, Vance said during the meeting. The county recorded 15 cases Tuesday and 17 on Wednesday, then eight Thursday. Recent numbers tend to fluctuate slightly as new test results come in, so the county is waiting before declaring any sort of trend.

A rise in gatherings spurred by pandemic fatigue and spring breakers could nudge the numbers upward, he noted.

“The stress and the weight of the pandemic are really taking a toll on people at this point — it’s been taking a toll on people for the entire year, but that fatigue has really kicked in,” Vance said. “We’re seeing these gatherings really pick up, which of course is concerning because we’re at a point where our cases are plateauing.”

The recent confirmation of two virus variants in Pitkin County also is worrisome because the variants could be more contagious, spurring a rise in case numbers. The county has confirmed three cases of the United Kingdom variant and one case of the California variant.

It could mean “a race of vaccinations versus the variants,” Levin noted: the faster people are inoculated, the less chance there is of new variants developing. Vigilance, Levin said, is key.

Even variants and gatherings in mind, public health officials plan to “stay the course,” according to environmental health manager Kurt Dahl.

That will include communication about COVID safety (think mask-wearing and social distancing) and programs like the Traveler Responsibility Code that overnight visitors must complete agreeing to follow local COVID-19 safety protocols.

“We’ve heard on several occasions we’re not out of the woods yet,” Pitkin County spokesperson Tracy Trulove said in a media briefing. “This is definitely looking a lot better for everyone, people are excited about the vaccine, but there’s still just more to know.”

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