Isolated Australians allegedly defy order, go skiing
Two Australians ordered into isolation in Aspen after testing positive for COVID-19 may have defied a public health order and left their hotel room Friday to ski in Snowmass Village, an official said Saturday.
In addition, local public health officials received confirmation Saturday of the first presumptive positive COVID-19 test from a Pitkin County resident, according to a news release.
“We are still waiting for the results on 23 (more) tests and will report those results as we receive them,” according to the release from the management team coordinating Pitkin County’s response to the outbreak. “Those who have tested presumptively positive will be notified by Pitkin County Public Health.”
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Jeff Cheney said state public health officials told him Friday they were investigating whether at least one person left isolation and went skiing. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office was looking into filing legal action to enforce the public health order keeping the Australians in isolation, he said.
However, Cheney said he did not know if state public health officials ever confirmed the skiing excursion, though he did not think legal action was taken in Pitkin County District Court.
“I believe they felt adequate enforcement was occurring,” Cheney said.
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn, who was acting as spokesman Saturday for the team managing the outbreak in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley, referred questions about the alleged skiing incident to the state public health department. He said the incident would fall under that agency’s jurisdiction.
Asked if the skiing incident occurred, Linn said, “I can’t say.” He did not respond when asked if he did not know or could not say.
An unsigned email from CDPHE on Saturday evening neither confirmed nor denied the alleged skiing incident.
“We don’t provide specific information about people in quarantine or isolation unless it’s necessary to inform the public and protect public health,” the email states. “You may want to reach out to Pitkin County Public Health to see if they have any information they are able to share.”
In a follow-up email, the unidentified state public health department spokesperson clarified the answer after being asked whether people with COVID-19 skiing did indeed threaten public health.
“Based on what we understand from CDC, risk of transmission is associated with exposure over a long period of time,” according to the email. “Outdoor and casual activities, such as skiing, are lower risk for transmission.
“Although skiing is an event done mainly at a distance from others, extra precaution should be taken when gathering in lodges or lift lines.”
In determining whether public health is threatened, state health officials investigate “to understand the risk of all activities that occurred while the case was potentially infectious,” the email states.
A voicemail message left Saturday for Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann seeking further clarification was not returned.
The 10 Australians — plus three fellow countrymen who declined to be tested for the virus — have been kept in isolation in Aspen since March 8, when state public health officials notified local authorities of the positive test in Australia.
Meanwhile, the positive test from a Pitkin County resident confirmed Saturday — which brings the area total to 11 positive cases — is the first such result outside the group of Australians who visited Aspen recently and may have been infected by a 21-year-old Australian woman who tested positive for the coronavirus when she returned home to Australia.
“Once we can do a contact investigation for this positive case and can confirm they had no history of travel and no known contact with any person who has been in contact with someone known to have COVID-19, we can confirm community transmission,” said Linn.
“In the absence of that data, we can still assume that there is limited community spread given what we have seen in other communities.”
On Friday, Pitkin County public health officials said for the first time that the COVID-19 virus is being spread on a limited basis throughout the Aspen community in a process known as “community transmission.” That means authorities cannot track the source of the infection back to a source.
They urged residents to wash hands frequently and practice “social distancing” to try to slow the spread of the disease.
Linn said Saturday he didn’t know when the rest of the pending test results would be available. He also did not know when local officials might receive results back from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which was supposed to be confirming the Australian positive test results.
Health officials were not aware of anyone from Pitkin County who’s been hospitalized for COVID-19 yet, he said.
On Thursday, authorities in Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties issued a tri-county public order forbidding gatherings of more than 50 people until April 8.
Later Saturday night, CDPHE responded specifically to questions about whether two people violated a public health order, and whether those orders were later lifted because the condition of the people who violated the order had improved.
“We were investigating the possibility that some people defied orders, and we were quickly exploring options for enforcement, which primarily includes filing an action in court to enforce the isolation or quarantine order,” according to the email statement.
“During this same time, release from isolation became appropriate for several individuals as the release criteria were met, and isolation orders have been terminated on an ongoing basis beginning today.”
No other details about who exactly was released from isolation and when was provided.