Pitkin County getting ready to mask up with new mandate

Board asks public health director to craft order to enact by next week if COVID cases hold steady or get worse

Community members wait in line to receive a self-administered COVID-19 test behind Aspen City Hall downtown on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Rising COVID-19 case counts along with all four of Aspen Valley Hospital’s ICU beds full Thursday, half of them with COVID-19 patients, was enough evidence for the Pitkin County board of health to unanimously agree to empower the public health director to craft a new indoor-mask mandate.

The health board issued the directive during its monthly and virtual meeting Thursday. That does not mean people in Pitkin County are required to wear face-coverings indoors Friday, Saturday, or Sunday or into early next week. What it does mean, however, is the county’s public health director, Jordana Sabella, is now charged with creating an indoor-mask mandate by next week if coronavirus case counts continue to hold steady or worsen.

The extra time also will give the community and businesses time to digest the policy, which will be modeled after a similar mandate in Boulder and under guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Local hospitalization data also will factor into the decision.

For the mandate “to be done right and communicated correctly,” Sabella said, additional days given to write the order will help the county “make sure we communicate what the policy is, to make sure it is correct and as good as we can make it the first time around, and roll this out in a responsible way.”

Board chair Greg Poschman, also a county commissioner, said: “I think the board can say ‘yes, let’s do this, and let the public health director make the call.'”

Sabella has met with Aspen Valley Hospital officials every Wednesday during the pandemic to better understand its operations. After next week’s meeting, and if trends hold, she will create the mandate that could take effect as soon as Thursday.

“This board, going even back two months now, has really been talking about using that as our primary metric for our precautions in our community,” Aspen Mayor Torre said in reference to hospital operations.

AVH was functioning at “cautious” levels in all three categories it uses to determine its operational health during the pandemic. The hospital made the switch Thursday from operating in the comfortable level in the three metrics, according to data presented at the meeting.

• Cautious means that six to 10 essential health care workers at the hospital are out with COVID-19 or its symptoms.

• The hospital’s daily visits as they relate to the coronavirus also were considered cautious — the emergency department averaged more than six COVID-19 visits a day during its last seven-day reporting period through Wednesday, its respiratory evaluation center was seeing at least 10 coronavirus patients daily, and its community testing center was giving at least 16 tests a day.

• The third metric, AVH’s hospitalization and transfer capacity, also was deemed cautious because it operated at 25% to 50% capacity during the most recent period.

The situation is compounded by what is happening elsewhere in area and state hospitals, noted David Ressler, CEO of Aspen Valley Hospital. The more full other hospitals become, the more difficult it is for AVH — a 25-bed critical-care facility — to transfer patients to larger operations.

“It doesn’t take much to stress our system,” Ressler said Thursday. “So we don’t want to wait until we’re overwhelmed. We want to be forthright with yourselves and the community on where we stand. And right now, we’re cautious.”

The board of health batted around the possibility of issuing a mask recommendation rather than requirement. They concluded that though a mandate would not be enforced, it would command more buy-in from residents and visitors than a recommendation would.

“I’m supportive of what puts the health and safety of the community first,” said Mayor Torre, who shrugged off the suggestion that the mandate would not carry much clout without enforcement.

Masks currently are required indoors at Aspen public schools and on public transportation — whether it’s on a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus or a United Airlines flight. Unvaccinated people who are in settings with vulnerable or at-risk populations also are required to wear masks.

The CDC’s most recent guidance is to wear a mask indoors in places with “substantial” or “high” rates of COVID-19 transmission. Pitkin County checks those boxes, officials said.

As of Tuesday, Pitkin County’s incident rate of 253 cases for every 100,000 people was nine times what it was at the same time last year, according to county epidemiologist Josh Vance.

Pitkin County’s resident case count was 45 from Sept. 1-7, up from the 40 recorded during Aug. 25-31, 41 during Aug. 18-24, and 19 from Aug. 11-17, Vance said.

Of the 145 positive cases during that period, 47 involved unvaccinated people, according to the report from Vance, who noted that approximately 90% of Pitkin County residents have received at least one vaccination shot.

Pitkin County would be the fourth governmental entity — behind the counties of Boulder, San Juan and San Miguel — to issue a mask ordinance since Gov. Jared Polis lifted the statewide mandate in May. The mandate doesn’t apply to indoor business that fall under the fully vaccinated status if they require patrons to show proof that they are fully vaccinated.

Belly Up Aspen, a downtown concert venue, doesn’t have social-distancing or face-covering requirements, but patrons are allowed entrance only if they show documentation that they have been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days. Businesses that follow that model would not be required to adhere to the mask mandate; business not using that model would need to put signs up about the county’s mask mandate.

Board members acknowledged that this is a busy month for events. The Food & Wine Classic starts Friday, with most of the event’s offerings held in open-air tents on public Aspen parks. It also has testing sites, and patrons must show verification of vaccination or a negative test result. Ruggerfest is also on tap this month, as well as the Golden Leaf Half Marathon, Aspen Filmfest and Aspen Autumn Words.

“We are probably a week-and-a-half late on this,” said Torre.

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