Infection rate climbs at Aspen Valley Hospital; officials keeping tabs on testing
Twenty-four tests returned positive results for COVID-19 last week, marking the highest number Aspen Valley Hospital has seen since the outbreak of the virus in March.
The figure shows “the number of positives is coming back, so we are definitely seeing a viral spread in the community,” hospital CEO David Ressler told the organization’s board of directors at its monthly meeting Monday.
The positive results came back during the week of July 5 to 11. A total of 209 test results were returned during those days and 50 are pending, hospital officials said.
Last week’s positive-test rate of 11.5% is the highest AVH has seen, Ressler said. Under guidelines set by the World Health Organization, countries can relax public health orders if positive test rates are less than 5% for two straight weeks.
“The number that everybody is watching,” Ressler said, “is that percentage of positive (test results).”
All told, the Aspen hospital has issued 1,511 tests — including the 50 results that are pending — with 107 coming back positive. That equates to an overall infection rate of 7%, which on a weekly basis had stayed below 8% until June 14 to 20, when 17 of 161 tests — 10.6% — returned positive results.
The infection rate then lowered to 7% June 21 to 27 (14 out of 198 tests) before increasing to 9% from June 28 through July 4 (20 out of 219).
Last week, however, showed the rate percentage climbing to double-digits again.
Hospital officials also are keeping close tabs on its testing capacity; AVH administered 266 tests last week.
“It’s testing specifically that is driving the caution having been reached,” Ressler said.
The hospital increased its daily testing capacity from 16 to 32 on July 1. The increase was why the hospital changed from a “comfortable” to “cautious” phase in one of three criteria it uses to assess operating capacities during the pandemic. The hospital’s operating capacity also influences the county’s public health orders.
The spike in testing is hardly isolated to the Aspen hospital, Ressler noted, citing media accounts that “this is becoming a national crisis. The turnaround times for tests are extending into a week and weeks in some cases, and you’re also reading about the people waiting in line for hours and hours to be tested. It is also something we are very concerned about in our counties (Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin).”
AVH continues to administer its rapid tests to patients with moderate and severe symptoms who are either at the respiratory tent or the emergency department. It also tests patients with physician referrals.
“The physicians are only ordering them for the patients that are most acute and most likely to have the virus, because despite our efforts to secure as many tests as possible, they are being rationed across the country,” he said. “All hospitals that have a Cepheid analyzer, which we are fortunate to have, want to have these tests and so they are starting to ration them.”
Also tested are asymptomatic patients at the hospital for non-coronavirus procedures, as well as people deemed by Public Health to have been exposed to someone (within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes) afflicted with COVID-19. Only Public Health can make that determination, Ressler and Dr. Catherine Bernard, chief of AVH medical staff, emphasized. Individuals determined exposed also must quarantine for 14 days.
AVH initially received 2,000 rapid tests and the 2020 Rescue Fund, which is run through the Aspen Community Foundation, also is enabling it to manage its case load.
Because of the increased demand for testing, AVH and other hospitals in the region — Vail Valley, Grand River and Valley View — are ramping up their emphasis on the “box it in” strategy to contain and control the virus. Part of that includes ongoing discussions about whether the rapid testing should remain available to an individual whose need for one (example: getting tested before leaving town) is not as urgent as another person’s (example: showing symptoms).
“This weekend and the last three weeks have shown us that we are still living in a resource-limited environment,” Bernard said.
The hospital, Ressler said, “is managing for now” when it comes to testing and it continues to communicate with the nearby counties and hospitals about their capacities and testing availability.
Hospital officials also said the tests aren’t perfect. False negatives are not unusual, they said.
“If you’ve got something that sounds like COVID and you were exposed to someone with COVID, it’s probably COVID, even if your test is negative, especially this time of the year when there are not a lot of viruses going around,” said AVH board member Dr. Greg Balko. “So stay at home if you’re sick.”
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Mario Ruiz came to Aspen Highlands from Bariloche through the ski patrol exchange as part of the Sister Cities program last winter. He quickly ingrained himself with the Highlands patrol. Ruiz was killed July 27 in an avalanche while working at his home ski area. The Highlands patrol is raising funds for his family.