More restrictions loom as Pitkin County COVID numbers rise
Community members must help bring down Pitkin County’s spiking COVID-19 case numbers in the coming weeks or prepare for more restrictions by Thanksgiving, officials said Monday.
The county’s incidence rate — which measures the number of virus cases based on a census population of about 18,000 residents — has exceeded current thresholds every day of November and possibly longer, according to county statistics.
In fact, Pitkin County has documented 50 new cases among residents in the past 14 days, Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, said Monday. That is the highest incidence rate the county has recorded since the pandemic began in March.
The Colorado state website had the number of new cases at 47 over the same period.
“We’re heading in the wrong direction,” Vance said. “We’ve seen (the incidence) rate pick up a lot in the last week or so.”
The state public health department designates a level of restrictions for each of the state’s 64 counties based on the incidence rate, the positivity rate and number of hospitalizations. Pitkin County is currently in the yellow level of medium restrictions that generally allow 50% capacity in restaurants, retail businesses, offices, gyms, indoor and outdoor events and places of worship.
If Pitkin County is forced to move to the next higher level — orange, or “high risk” — that capacity is reduced to 25% more or less across the board. And while schools are not affected, group sports must go virtual or outdoors with groups of less than 10, according to the state’s guidelines.
“There are a lot of scary things that may be in our future that other counties are on the brink of,” Vance said. “We have to start working together as a community to drag these numbers down.”
Under the yellow restrictions, Pitkin County cannot go above 175 per 100,000 residents. Starting Nov. 1, when the rate stood at 185.9, the county’s rate has continued to increase until it hit 259.1 on Monday, according to online statistics. Locally kept statistics indicate the rate has been above 180 since Oct. 30, and hit 264 on Saturday and Sunday.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment contacted county public health officials Nov. 3 and “put Pitkin County on notice that due to our rising numbers, we could be at risk of moving to the high-risk category ‘orange’ and having to implement tighter restrictions across all sectors,” according to Pitkin County’s online COVID-19 dial.
That was a sort-of pre-warning warning, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. The state has not yet required the county to submit a mitigation plan, at which time a multi-week timeline goes into affect to allow that plan to work.
Pitkin County already implemented part of a mitigation plan when the Board of Health voted in late October to reduce the number of people allowed at informal gatherings like dinner parties to just five people from only two households. State guidelines limit such gatherings to 10 people.
However, the county is now urging residents to limit contact to in-household members only, according to a notice sent to businesses Monday.
“Interact with only those in your household,” according to the notice from Laryssa Dandeneau of Pitkin County Public Health. “Do your best to avoid any social interactions with friends and family outside of your homes throughout the month of November.”
If the incidence rate does not drop below 175 during the two-week period, the state will require the move to the orange level, which would likely occur by about Thanksgiving “if not sooner” if recent trends are not reversed, said Kara Silbernagel, projects and policy manager for the county.
Some of the rise in cases can be attributed to Halloween — public health officials have heard of several get-togethers that night that spread the disease — though other factors are responsible as well, Vance said.
“Community spread is extremely high right now,” he said, referencing situations where infected people do not know how they were infected. “It’s in all age groups, many different sectors and in every arena you could expect to see it in.”
Of those recent 50 cases, 36% were chalked up to community spread because investigators could not pin down the point of infection, Vance said.
In addition, the number of COVID-19 cases among the county’s children is increasing, he said.
The positivity rate among children was 5.5 in the past 14 days, though it has spiked as high as 6.9 on Friday, according to local statistics. That number is calculated by dividing the number of positive tests locally with the total number performed. The positivity rate in the county as a whole stands at 6.6 since Oct. 26, according to local statistics.
The children’s rate has not been affected by the recent round of testing at the Aspen School District, Vance said. Local public health officials have not yet received data from those tests, he said.
County officials have said they want to keep the positivity rate below 5%, a marker that indicates enough testing is being conducted.
Residents also are not getting tested soon enough after developing COVID-19 symptoms, Vance said. The average is currently 65 hours between symptom onset and testing, he said. They also are not observing face mask and social distancing guidelines as closely as they once did.
Finally, the infection rate in the areas around Pitkin County and across the nation is going up, he said.
For example, while Pitkin County’s cumulative incidence rate over the past 14 days was 276 — well above the 175 threshold for yellow restrictions — Eagle County’s was 446, Garfield County’s was 399, Gunnison County’s was 360, Lake County stood at 433 and Summit County was a whopping 955, according to state statistics. Anything above 350 is in the state’s red zone, the highest and a “stay-at-home” level.
“This isn’t a Pitkin County trend,” Peacock said. “This is a state of Colorado trend and a national trend.”
Peacock also strongly urged community members to follow face mask requirements, informal group limits and social distancing. Vance said the incidence rate won’t go down without cooperation from local residents.
“We are not going to enforce our way out of this as a community,” Peacock said. “We need to limit out of household contacts to reduce the spread.”
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As of Sunday, everyone in the 970 area code has to dial all 10 digits in a phone number. The change in Colorado is part of a national switch that will enable the national rollout of 988, which will be the National Suicide Hotline. That number will take callers to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which will go live July 16, 2022.