Pitkin County health officials plan more testing as COVID cases climb

Edgar Ruiz reacts to the COVID-19 test as nurse Lisa O’Neil administers it in a sectioned off wing of MidValley Family Practice in Basalt on Thursday, July 2, 2020. Aspen Valley Hospital plans to open a complementary testing site in Basalt within two weeks.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

As the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Pitkin County increases, mirroring national trends, the rush is on to add testing capacity.

Epidemiologists and Aspen Valley Hospital officials told the Pitkin County Board of Health on Thursday that the county’s positivity rate has increased since mid-September. As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, there were 18 county residents in isolation and 161 in quarantine after testing positive or they were possibly exposed, according to epidemiologist Josh Vance.

“There’s been a lot of activity recently,” he said. “When we’re looking at our case counts here, we’ve seen a significant increase in cases over the last month and a half.”

Nearly 1,220 county residents sought tests between Sept. 14 and Oct. 13. That’s as high or higher than any other four-week period since the coronavirus outbreak started in March, he said. Tests were sought by 904 residents of Aspen, 266 from the Snowmass Village area, 31 from Woody Creek, 10 from Redstone and eight from Meredith.

The percentage of people testing positive also is climbing.

“We’re right around 5 percent, which is the threshold that we like to stay under,” Vance said. “We’ve seen that positivity rate grow since about Sept. 24.”

Pitkin County is investigating five separate outbreaks ranging in size from two to nine people. That is the most outbreaks under investigation since the pandemic started, Vance said.

Dr. Kim Levin, a member of the board of health, said, “It’s a very, very concerning steady increase in cases since the middle of September.”

She said health officials across the country expected a “bump” in COVID-19 cases after Labor Day weekend because of the number of social gatherings. The bump came later in the month.

“What is happening is not only did it bump but it bumped and continued to rise steadily since mid-September,” she said.

Between 20 and 40 Pitkin County residents per day have sought testing since mid-September. Levin said there was a record number of 37 people earlier this week. On Thursday, 33 people had sought tests by early afternoon, she said, so a daily record was possible.

“We’re maxing out here,” Levin said, “and there is an additional need and there is a lot of work being done to create additional testing sites in the community.”

There are no patients currently being treated at AVH due to COVID-19, though the most serious cases are sent to other facilities at lower elevations. However, the emergency room is seeing about six patients per day on average with symptoms of the virus, according to Levin.

The increasing number of cases are particularly concerning for health officials going into winter, when cold weather will force people to spend more time indoors and potentially increase exposure to the virus.

“My perspective is unless cases stabilize and start to decrease in the next few weeks, we may be in a very difficult position going into expected holiday surges and winter season,” Levin said.

“A third wave is what we think is coming,” she concluded.

Snowmass Village Mayor and health board chair Markey Butler said the statistics should alarm all county residents.

“All I’ve got to say is yikes,” Butler said. “We’ve got to stop this trend. … We have got to stay open. This is really tough to crack when we know ski season is on top of us and tons of visitors coming in, so we as a community must get our arms around this and really work together to bring this down.”

Aspen Valley Hospital officials are adding testing capacity. CEO Dave Ressler said a testing site would be added within two weeks in Basalt. It will complement other testing sites that operate on limited days. The idea will be to offer testing throughout all weekdays and tests will be available at AVH on weekends.

Ressler said the new site would be open to any resident of the Roaring Fork Valley who displays symptoms of COVID-19. Officials also are working on testing for asymptomatic people who feel they might have been exposed.

Ressler said the goal is to have people send an email to health officials outlining the symptoms they are experiencing and they will be sent to a testing site that can offer the type of care they need for those symptoms.

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