Pitkin County gatherings increase to 10 as holidays worry officials
Pitkin County Board of Health also votes to stay in Orange-plus restrictions and not voluntarily move up to Red level
Not only did members of the Pitkin County Board of Health decide not to move into Red level restrictions Thursday, they voted to increase the maximum number of people allowed at private, informal gatherings in the county from five to 10.
The county’s current “Orange-plus” level restrictions limited the gatherings to five people from two households, which is stricter than state guidelines for Orange that allow 10 people from two households. Because the limitation applies to lodging and short-term rentals, board members felt the five-person cap was onerous for families who gather here for the holidays in hotels and condos.
“Enforcement is the problem,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, an alternate on the board. “Ten (people) makes better sense as far as compliance. It sets a more realistic number.”
Aspen’s lodging community, which is in the unfortunate front-line position of both educating visitors about and enforcing the county’s COVID-19 protocols, has voiced concern mainly about the five-person number and not the maximum of two households, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. The combination of two families is most often going to involve more than five people, he said.
The board members supported the larger number for informal gatherings despite the fact that they have been identified by public health officials as causing outbreaks that spread larger amounts of virus than other arenas like restaurants.
Restaurants, however, have been at the center of 39% of the 18 outbreaks in Pitkin County in the past two weeks, followed by recreational activities, said Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist. However, that does not mean restaurants have caused the largest outbreaks, he said, which have ranged from just two people to 29 people, he said.
“We’re seeing (outbreaks) across the board,” Vance said.
An outbreak is defined by two or more cases tracked by to a certain site, Vance said.
The change allowing 10 people at informal gatherings — which include indoor or outdoor groups at hotel rooms, rented condos or private residences — will be officially made to Pitkin County’s public health order by early next week.
The idea to voluntarily move to Red level restrictions in order to allow local businesses to receive money from a state COVID-19 relief bill went no further Thursday at the Board of Health than it did with Pitkin County commissioners Monday. The money is not available if a county is not under Red restrictions.
The move to Red would close local restaurant dining rooms in favor of take-out only, limit informal gatherings to only one household and cancel all indoor events like holiday parties. With the usually lucrative Christmas season already here and the amount of money available from the state comparatively small, no one on the health board wanted to make the move.
One commissioner on Monday called the amount of money that would be available to Pitkin County if it went into Red restrictions by Thursday – estimated to be a total of $103,000 – “peanuts.”
Also, as Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins, an alternate on the health board, pointed out Thursday, it might not be so easy to return to Orange restrictions once Red restrictions are in place.
“There was really no support (from the business community) to move to Red,” said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County interim public health director.
Vance on Thursday continued to warn county residents about spiking numbers of COVID-19 cases here and across the state.
Three weeks ago when the Board of Health last met, there had been 96 cases of COVID-19 among Pitkin County residents in the preceding two weeks. During the two weeks that ended Thursday, the county logged 170 cases, including the highest daily total yet of 31 new cases on Dec. 2, Vance said.
That means Pitkin County’s incidence rate — which is based on a population of 100,000 — is rapidly climbing. That rate has been in the Red level restrictions for most of November and all of December, according to local epidemiological data. The county’s incidence rate was 946 on Thursday, which is way above the rate of 350 that signals entry into the Red level.
“January could very well be worse than December,” Vance said.
The one bit of good news — and it was a small bit — was Pitkin County’s positivity rate, which had been skyrocketing in recent days, according to local data. The rate — calculated by dividing the total number of positive tests by the total number of tests performed — hit a high of 12.5% during the past two weeks, Vance said.
However, the county received a large number of negative test results back on Wednesday, which drove the positivity rate down significantly. That rate stood at 11.6% on Wednesday and 9.3% on Thursday, according to the local data. If it hits 15% for even one day, the state will move Pitkin County to Red level restrictions.
The county has been experiencing a long turnaround time for test results in recent days as labs processing them have become backlogged, Vance said.
Sabella said residents “can be cautiously optimistic” about the positivity rate, though the increasing incidence rate remains “really concerning.”
With the incidence rate continuing to remain in Red, the county’s hospitalization rate could prompt a move to Red level restrictions if three or more people are admitted to Aspen Valley Hospital in the same day. The concern with that metric is that the state will include Pitkin County residents hospitalized with COVID in other parts of the state, like a college student living elsewhere for example, in that local rate.
In other words, Pitkin County’s hospitalizations don’t necessarily have to occur in Pitkin County.
Two people were hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms at AVH in the past week, though they’d both been discharged by Thursday, said Lori Maloy, the hospital’s chief clinical officer. Neither had severe symptoms requiring a ventilator, she said.
Public health officials are concerned about the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and the virus transmission that will come along with the inevitable gatherings. Vance said he and others haven’t yet seen an expected increase in cases because of Thanksgiving gatherings officials know occurred in the county and surrounding area and are monitoring that closely.
Sabella said the safest course of action is to associate only with the people you live with.
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The American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton, was close to Aspen’s hearts and pocketbooks. Early settlers had experienced it during the Civil War, hence one of Aspen’s early mining claims was named Red Cross.