Local COVID-19 rate remains high, but omicron wave may be starting to wane
Pitkin County’s incident rate remains among the highest in U.S.
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.