Pitkin County health order extended as facemask concerns dominate

A healthcare provider puts a fit-tested mask over her face before her next patient at the coronavirus testing location at the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s Aspen Village Location on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Thursday’s Pitkin County Board of Health meeting featured much talk about facemasks and when to wear them and who should make those who don’t wear them wear them.

The board even passed a motion urging area municipalities to direct local law enforcement to increase enforcement of facemasks.

“We need to figure out an overall strategy (on facemasks),” said Aspen Mayor Torre, a member of the health board. “(The city of Aspen’s) mask ordinance has a lot of allowance and maybe we don’t want that.”

Meanwhile, the board extended the current public health order for another 30 days with minor tweaks that included the opening of libraries and that any performers must remain at least 25 feet away from audience members. In addition, the board clarified that all restaurant patrons not in the same group must remain 6 feet from other patrons, and that it’s not tables that must be 6 feet apart.

Otherwise, with COVID-19 cases increasing in Pitkin County, the health board decided to stay the course for another 30 days. That means group size remains capped at 50 people, restaurants will continue at 50% capacity and bars will remain closed.

“Overall, COVID-19 cases are increasing in Pitkin County,” said Josh Vance, an epidemiologist working for Pitkin County Public Health. Seven Pitkin County residents were confirmed positive for the virus Wednesday and five more were confirmed positive Thursday, Vance said.

The county has registered 23 new cases in the past 14 days, which averages to 130 cases per 100,000 residents, he said.

“That indicates we have significant spread of the disease,” Vance said. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase recently” and public health officials expect it to go up once the effect of Fourth of July becomes apparent in the coming weeks.

Those numbers don’t correspond to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 Community Report, which is featured on the county Public Health website, because of a two-day lag in reporting to the state, said Charlie Spickert, another county epidemiologist.

Of those positive cases involving Pitkin County residents, 28% were exposed through community spread, meaning the residents and contact tracers don’t know the source of the infection, Vance said.

“That’s always concerning,” he said.

Twenty-four percent of the cases were exposed through contact with people who recently traveled to Pitkin County, Vance said. Another 24% were exposed at work, while 20% were exposed through a household member or friend, he said. The rest were exposed through health care or parties.

A look at a small sample of 68 recently exposed Pitkin County cases showed that 37% of them were overweight, 31% had high cholesterol, 24% had heart-related issues, 12% had thyroid problems, 10% had sleep apnea and 9% had Type II diabetes, Vance said. The numbers of heart-related and thyroid patients were far higher than the national average.

The predominant strain of COVID-19 currently affecting Colorado and most of the world is one from Europe that mutated to develop a stronger spike that injects the virus into cells, Vance said. That is opposed to the strain from China, which featured a weaker spike that tended to break off during the injection process, he said.

The European strain is 10-times more infectious than the Chinese version, Vance said. Both, however, cause the same fatality rate, though the European one could cause more deaths because it infects more people, he said.

Also, there’s now “a lot of consensus” that COVID-19 is transmitted through the air, Vance said. The aerosol particles — about the width of a human hair — can linger in the air for minutes or hours and be passed through air conditioning ventilation to infect people more than 6 feet away from an initial cough, sneeze or exhalation, he said.

Finally, there’s also evidence that asymptomatic people produce more virus aerosols than those with symptoms, he said.

“Wearing a facemask is most effective (in protecting from infection) no matter where we are,” Vance said.

Those comments prompted a lengthy discussion by board of health members about facemasks in and around Aspen.

Health board member Linda Vieira said she recently was on a narrow, local hiking trail and saw many people not wearing masks. She said she didn’t want to admonish all of them and wondered how to go about gaining more facemask compliance from residents and visitors.

Fellow board member Brent Miller said he’d seen the same thing and seconded her concerns.

However, Jordana Sabella, who works for Pitkin County Public Health, pointed out that the applicable public health order does not require people outside on trails or walking down the street to wear facemasks unless they will be within 6 feet of a non-household member for more than 10 minutes. Facemasks are required inside businesses and public buildings, she said.

After the meeting, Spickert further clarified the point, saying that because COVID-19 appears to be transmitted through the air, people with compromised immune systems, are overweight or have other higher risk factors for the virus might want to wear a facemask outdoors.

Torre suggested possibly eliminating the 10 minute portion of the facemask rule.

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who chaired Thursday’s board of health meeting, continued to urge Aspen Police and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to crack down harder on those who don’t wear facemasks or practice proper social distancing.

“Law enforcement doesn’t want to get behind getting heavy-handed,” he said. “It’s time to have a meeting of the minds and have the chief of police and the sheriff in here.”

Miller suggested that police gently but firmly enforce the facemask rules, while Spickert thought that handing out special masks with “I Love Aspen” on them might be a less-heavy-handed solution.

Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn told The Times earlier this week they don’t believe it is the job of local police to enforce the public health order. They both said their officers and deputies would continue to educate people on the rules, but that cracking down hard on facemask scofflaws goes against the community policing model embraced in Aspen and Pitkin County for nearly 50 years.

Moreover, both men said they didn’t know of a way to criminally charge someone for not wearing a facemask.

On Thursday, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Richard Neiley clarified that point. He said police can write people misdemeanor criminal tickets based on state law for violating the public health order that are punishable by fines and possible jail time.

The same state law also provides a civil penalty, wherein a District Court judge can force someone into quarantine or isolation if the county’s public health director deems it necessary, as well as force a business to comply with health order dictates, Neiley said.

The Board of Health on Thursday strengthened language in the current public health order enhancing Public Health Director Karen Koenemann’s ability to do just that.

“That really is critical to (contact) investigation,” Koenemann said after the meeting.

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