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Local money flows to virus relief efforts

A woman walks on the Rio Grande Trail in Basalt on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The one clear thing about the coronavirus pandemic is that government money — and a lot of it — will be needed to limit many people’s economic pain.

And as that pain increases daily with ever more isolating public health orders — bars and restaurants are limited in service to take-out and most other businesses are closed, many have lost jobs and the county has ordered most residents to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic — local governments in the upper Roaring Fork Valley have started to chip in. By the end of Wednesday, that total will be about $1.3 million and will continue to grow.

“I’m proud of the county (for putting) this money together,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said Tuesday at the board’s weekly work session. “I want to speak with other (area elected officials) and try to up the ante a little bit.

“Because people are going to need more help. It’s critically important.”

The five-member county commission voted last week to contribute $500,000 for emergency needs — food, housing or other bills — that county residents might have as a result of the coronavirus and related job losses. Commissioners are set to vote Wednesday on another $350,000 direct contribution to those needs, with another $150,000 to be held in a separate emergency fund that can be put toward other needs, like wildfire, that might arise.

The Aspen City Council voted on first reading Tuesday night to approve a $200,000 contribution toward local coronavirus relief efforts. A final vote will occur next week during a public hearing.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein said while the community will get through the crisis, people need to brace themselves that it’s going to get worse and it’s going to take a long time to recover.

“The token of $200,000 is just the beginning,” he said. “We will try to do all we can to mitigate the damage this COVID-19 incident is imposing on our community.”

Councilman Skippy Mesirow suggested the city’s elected officials discuss immediately how much more the municipal government can give to local residents facing economic hardship.

“This ain’t gonna be the last time” the city will be asked to chip in to local relief efforts, he said. “We don’t have time to wait.”

City Manager Sara Ott pumped the brakes a bit, telling council that the loss of millions of dollars in sales tax and other revenue will affect the city’s budget projections and not to make any rash spending decisions.

“Just as the local businesses feel it, the local government feels it,” she said, adding that she encourages council members to listen to what the business community needs and recognize that government-run initiatives and programs will have to pause.

Local and state public health orders limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer and other restrictions last until April 17.

Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann told Council that those restrictions and others could last longer in an effort to suppress the community spread of the virus.

She added that suppression strategies are most effective if they are done over large geographic areas, whether it’s countries, states or regions. But Pitkin County largely has been on its own in issuing local public health orders, so she called on council to advocate to the state for more restrictions.

“This would be much more effective if we were doing it across the state with more restrictive strategies … but because we’re not isolated I would guess that the suppression strategy will have to last longer than the current public health order, which goes through April 17,” she said.

“We are using that as the timeline for right now, but we will be revisiting that. I will put money on it that we will be extending it at some point.”

The Snowmass Village Town Council announced this week it will kick in “at least $100,000” to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 relief fund for its residents and employees who are in need.

“Fundamentally, we are committed to no one losing their housing at this time,” members of the Snowmass Town Council wrote in a letter to residents. “The town is working to develop methods to assist our business community and those living in our employee housing units.

“We are very willing to work with every individual and business in need.”

Pitkin County has been accepting applications from residents for economic assistance since late last week. An “army” of volunteers — including employees of both the county and Aspen Skiing Co. — have been helping process the applications and call people back, said Nan Sundeen, the county’s health and human services director.

As of Tuesday evening, 645 people had applied for Pitkin County benefits, she said. However, 20% were from Eagle or Garfield counties and were directed to services in those counties.

That left 517 Pitkin County households comprising 1,032 individuals who needed mainly rent or mortgage assistance, Sundeen said. Of those 517 households, 129 were families with children and 260 were from the city of Aspen, she said.

Sundeen told City Council that many more people will be calling on their local governments for assistance in the days and weeks to come.

“How much is it going to cost? How long is it going to last? Don’t know,” she said.

County staff and volunteers verify that applicants are employed until the social distancing efforts to control the virus spread began, as well as encourage people to apply for federal food assistance benefits, Sundeen said.

So far, they’ve found no instances of fraud and no efforts to “scam the system,” she said. To Sundeen, the “most remarkable thing” has been that nearly 100% of applicants tell volunteers they are probably not the person who needs the most help and they understand if the county is unable to assist them, she said.

“These are people who’ve never asked for help before,” she said. “Their generosity toward their peers is extraordinary.”

County officials are using the local funds last after first trying to tap state or federal funds to help local residents, Sundeen said.

Besides helping local residents, the county’s money also will go toward funding the ongoing local public health response, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. That includes funding the county’s public health department’s limited contact investigations as well as putting money behind efforts to bring broad-based testing to Aspen and Pitkin County, he said.

“We hear the community,” Peacock said. “We know that testing is extremely important to implement on a community-wide basis.”

Peacock did not have any more information Tuesday about the county’s possible acquisition of at least 1,000 new rapid response COVID-19 tests from a Colorado company that received permission to distribute the tests Monday. County officials were able to get Pitkin County on a priority list for the tests, though the company isn’t expected to receive its first batch of 100,000 tests until later this week, and how they will be distributed and when is not yet known.

The state of Colorado also is working on building statewide broad-based testing for the coronavirus, a state official said Tuesday. Gov. Jared Polis has prioritized building the capability for mass testing across Colorado, said Mike Willis, director of Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management.

“You will absolutely see more mass testing,” Willis said.

Gabe Muething, director of the Aspen Ambulance District and an incident commander for the local incident management team, told council during a briefing on Tuesday that the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) limits how much testing can be done.

What little masks, gowns, gloves and the like that local public health officials have are being reserved for emergency response teams and personnel at Aspen Valley Hospital.

“If we are using all of that on testing, that leaves nothing left if we do actually have a surgery,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have that PPE available for our health care workers or first responders and if we get a second patient, we would really like our health care workers to be safe, so they can save us later if we were to get that disease. So PPE is very valuable.

“The entire world is looking for PPE right now.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Pitkin County had either 16 or 18 confirmed positive COVID-19 test results, depending on either the county’s website at pitkincounty.com/covid-19 or the state public health department’s website at data-cdphe.opendata.arcgis.com.

The 18 cases amounted to an infection rate of 100.4 per 100,000 people, according to the state’s website. Pitkin County’s population is 17,926.

By comparison, neighboring Eagle County — population 54,895 — reported 96 positive cases of COVID-19, an infection rate of 174.8 per 100,000 residents, according to the state’s website. Eagle County commissioners earmarked $1.15 million on Tuesday for COVID-19 relief efforts.

Dave Ressler, CEO of Aspen Valley Hospital, said Tuesday that no one hospitalized in Aspen has tested positive for COVID-19, though the hospital was waiting for test results back from three or four others with virus symptoms.

Hospital officials transferred a critical patient with COVID-19 to Grand Junction in recent days, he said.

Officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority confirmed Monday that one of the agency’s drivers was taken from his home Sunday by ambulance to AVH, then immediately transferred to another facility. The agency said the driver was one of 17 RFTA employees who recently reported symptoms consistent with COVID-19, though it did not know if the man had the illness.

Dr. Brad Holmes, head of AVH’s in-patient COVID response efforts, said Tuesday the hospital has had several people with virus symptoms over the past two weeks or so, and has had to wait several days for test results. However, the hospital has not seen an influx of COVID-19 patients, he said.

“The vast majority of people don’t get very sick,” Holmes said. “Also we need to remember that we live in a very healthy population.”

Still, Holmes and AVH are preparing to reach the hospital’s capacity and beyond and that he’s not surprised he and his colleagues haven’t yet seen a significant number of patients.

“I do believe it can get worse,” Holmes said. “I feel like we’re right where I’d expect we’d be. We expect to see more cases. … I just don’t know when they will start to go back down.”

In an effort to blunt the spread of the virus, Polis on Tuesday urged the presidents of Albertsons and The Kroger Co., to provide safer environments for employees and customers. He asked them to provide gloves and other protective equipment for employees, expand grocery deliveries, provide designated times for higher-risk individuals to shop and establish access controls to ensure safe social distancing, according to a news release.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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