Pitkin County returning to lesser Yellow level restrictions starting Saturday

With case counts decreasing, state officials give go-ahead to drop out of Orange level

The Aspen Covid Testing lab team works to process COVID-19 tests on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After seven days of declining COVID-19 case counts, Pitkin County will move back to Yellow level restrictions at 6 a.m. Saturday, the county’s public health director said Thursday.

Thursday marked the seventh consecutive day that seven-day case counts were 90 or below, which is the maximum threshold for the Yellow level, said Jordana Sabella. That was enough for her to call state public health officials late Thursday afternoon and confirm that the county can move to the lesser restrictions as of Saturday morning.

“It’s very exciting (and) very encouraging,” Sabella told members of the Pitkin County Board of Health during their regular monthly meeting Thursday.

The move to Yellow will occur despite the fact that the county’s positivity rate, according to the state, remains within Orange level restrictions and above 7.5%, she said. While state public health officials previously said both metrics had to be within Yellow for seven consecutive days, they have since advised county public health officials that the positivity rate metric is more flexible than the case count numbers, Sabella said.

The state moved Pitkin County to Orange level restrictions March 24 after seven-day case counts rose above 90 to Orange levels. That reduced capacity at restaurants and other businesses, excluding retail, to 25%. The move to Yellow increases that capacity to 50%.

The county’s COVID-19 incidence rate — which measures the infection prevalence based on the number of residents — was the highest in the state throughout most of March, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist. That rate, however, has dropped signficantly in the past week as the number of visitors and mobility in Pitkin County has decreased, he said Thursday.

Still concerning to local public health officials, however, is the number of COVID-19 variant cases detected in the county, Vance said. Pitkin County has the second highest rate of variants among Colorado counties, with 40 cases of the U.K. variant confirmed and 70 suspected, and 18 cases of the California variant confirmed, he said. Pitkin County’s incidence rate of the U.K. variant might have to do with a higher level of detection and surveillance.

The U.K. variant has become the most prevalent COVID-19 strain in the United States, where it is particularly likely to infect children, Vance said. Colorado has confirmed more than 750 cases of the U.K. variant, one of the highest rates in the country, he said.

The state’s color-coded dial restrictions will become voluntary April 15, when counties can decide what level restrictions best suit their communities. But with levels of transmission higher in rural resort communities, Pitkin County, along with Summit, Eagle, Routt, Gunnison and Clear Creek counties, have been trying to work out a uniform set restrictions that best protects those communities, Sabella said.

With those higher transmission rates in mind, members of the Board of Health voted Thursday to follow local public health staff recommendations and require state dial restrictions to remain in effect in Pitkin County until May 27. Both Sabella and Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock have said there is support within those rural resort communities for keeping the restrictions in place through May.

“We’re not there yet,” Peacock said. “There are higher risk factors here.”

Those restrictions will include continuing to require facemasks, business and event safety plans, informal gathering limits of 10 people from two households that will continue to apply to lodging settings, informing guests of the traveler responsibility code and requiring isolation and quarantine rules.

Peacock and public health officials here and in other rural resort communities hope the slowdown in visitors brought on by the spring off-season coupled with rising vaccination rates will allow the summer season to occur without capacity restrictions that have hobbled local restaurants and other businesses.

“Let’s stay the course,” Peacock told members of the Board of Health, “so that when summer rolls around we can relax some restrictions.”

While the state will allow individual counties to create local restrictions, it will retain the ability to rein-in troubled areas that exhibit high hospitalization rates and will require indoor gatherings to remain at 50% capacity or a limit of 500 people.

“I think it makes a lot of sense that we continue to stick with (state dial restrictions),” said Markey Butler, chairwoman of the Board of Health. “I don’t ever want to have to go back into Orange or back into Red (level restrictions).”

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