As virus spread slows, Eagle Co eyes reopening

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Eagle County Public Health and Environment Director Heath Harmon
Courtesy Photo

Eagle County is asking the state for permission to reopen businesses and outdoor recreation areas that can meet social distancing requirements. Heath Harmon, local public health director, said Saturday that the Vail Valley has now reached a level where everyone who has COVID-19 symptoms can get a test.

Availability of tests is key to making such a request, according to the “National Coronavirus Response, A Road Map to Reopening” — a document on which Eagle County and other areas around the state are basing their plans for reopening.

During the past week, Harmon said commercial labs were able to work through a backlog of tests, and results are now coming back consistently within 24 to 48 hours. That, along with the fact that local health providers now have full access to testing for anyone who shows symptoms in Eagle County, means the county has now met the requirements to trigger the relief request, Harmon said.

Now that Eagle County has seen a sustained decrease in COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days, Harmon said the community will receive greater health benefits from incrementally loosening restrictions.

“Let’s face it, economically we can also see longer-term public health concerns, behavioral health concerns, as well,” Harmon said. “So what we’re really trying to do is measure the risk in the community with the fact that the spread of the disease has slowed down so much.”

Harmon likened it to taking a step forward as a community.

“We want people to be able to get a paycheck again. We want to make sure that people can pay their rent again, pay their mortgages again. We want those businesses where people are employed to slowly be able to open up again, still implementing those social distancing requirements,” Harmon said. “And find the balance and the benefits that relate to the disease in the community, the economic pieces for each of us as residents in the community, as well as our behavioral health needs as a community.”

Following the road map

Harmon said a lot of local public health officials have looked to the “National Coronavirus Response, A Road Map to Reopening” document in preparing their plans for reopening.

“I’ve been on calls all this week with folks across the state. … We all realized that these are important pieces before we even think about reopening, that these things need to be in place, these triggers need to be met at that local levels,” Harmon said, in reference to the document’s “trigger for moving to Phase II.”

The document suggests states begin Phase II — in which a majority of schools and businesses can reopen with limitations to keep people from congregating in close proximity — once the following provisions are achieved:

A sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

Hospitals in the state are safely able to treat all patients requiring hospitalization without resorting to crisis standards of care.

The state is able to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms.

The state is able to conduct active monitoring of confirmed cases and their contacts.

Harmon said that in Eagle County, the provisions for moving to Phase II are now being met and positive cases have seen sustained reduction despite the fact that testing has expanded, thanks in part to a mobile testing unit that has been visiting low-income areas.

“We’ve been expanding testing, both in the Eagle Valley and the Roaring Fork Valley,” Harmon said. “The testing we’re making more available in areas it may not have been as accessible previously. So the testing volume, because of those outreaches, is probably no different than it was two weeks ago.”

Get tested right away

Harmon’s request also asks permission to increase the size of permissible gatherings in Eagle County from zero to 10.

“We want people to be able to recreate. We just also want to make sure that people are not in large groups and gatherings when they’re doing that,” Harmon said. “I think getting outside is one thing that we continue to want to stress. We just need to do that in a socially distanced way.”

Harmon said regardless of the outcome of his request to the state, people who have symptoms will need to get tested quickly in order to keep reducing the spread, and Eagle County residents can now expect to have COVID-19 testing available to anyone who needs them in the coming months.

“We’re hoping to make sure that we have that capacity. That’s what we’re building, and we’re working with our medical community to be able to do that,” he said. “Vail Health has been an incredible partner all along the way to be able to test more rapidly than what we’ve seen in other communities, and so right now we’re wanting to make sure first and foremost that the public understands that there’s an individual responsibility here. If you’re developing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, we really want you to get in for testing within 48 hours.”

Response next week

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is expected to respond early next week to Eagle County’s request. Local officials say the response could include approval, denial or suggested changes.

A statement from Eagle County issued Saturday said the board of commissioners was in full support of the request, and Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said public health and economic health are intrinsically tied.

“As we look at changing our public health orders, we must do so in a manner that keeps our health a top priority,” she said. “We will need the community’s help in striking the right balance of reopening and caution.”

Commissioner Matt Scherr said thousands of families are living with risks to their food, shelter, and physical and mental health because they have lost their jobs.

“Giving them an opportunity to earn a paycheck will be paramount to improving their families’ stability, reducing anxiety and depression, and starting our community down the road to recovery,” Scherr said.

Eagle County Public Health is sharing local data, including case counts, hospitalizations and more, through its Eagle County COVID-19 Monitoring dashboard.

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Residents may also email Covid or call 970-328-9750 with any questions.