Pitkin County winter pandemic plan tweaked, adopted by board of health
With COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state expected to peak at higher levels this winter than the highest levels of the pandemic reached last winter, Pitkin County on Friday donned the armor officials hope will protect residents, visitors and the economy.
Members of the Pitkin County Board of Health officially adopted a winter COVID-19 mitigation plan at their regular monthly meeting. The plan keeps in place the indoor mask mandate, requires a safety plan for larger events and establishes restrictions attached to the local hospital’s stress level.
“We’re being thoughtful now so we don’t go into panic later,” said Board of Health Chairman Greg Poschman, also a Pitkin County commissioner. “We’ve all seen this once before where we had to wrestle with decisions like this. To all those who think we’re stepping on liberties … we are trying to be thoughtful in advance.”
The board established a mandatory indoor mask rule Sept. 16, and reiterated Friday the need to keep it in effect this winter until the COVID-19 incidence rate in the community comes down.
The incidence rate per 100,000 residents must remain at 50 or below for 21 consecutive days before the mask mandate would be rescinded. It would go back into effect, however, if the rate heads north of 50 for five consecutive days.
In order for the mask mandate to be rescinded in the public schools, each building on the campus must attain a 70% vaccinated rate for students and employees, and the county incidence rate must be below 50 per 100,000 people. The action would be taken in consultation with local public health officials, said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director.
Pitkin County’s incidence rate was 169 per 100,000 people as of Thursday, down from 186 on Wednesday, according to the county’s online dashboard.
Businesses and offices can get around the indoor mask mandate by signing up for the public health department’s Fully Vaccinated Facilities Program. Those businesses would have to ensure that all employees are fully vaccinated and that only fully vaccinated customers are allowed to enter.
The program has attracted 33 businesses so far, including some Aspen Skiing Co. facilities, two restaurants, concert venues and a gym or two, Sabella said.
The indoor mask mandate has helped Pitkin County to achieve a slowly but steadily declining incidence rate, while the state of Colorado, which has no statewide mask mandate, has been steadily increasing, according to a slide Sabella showed at Friday’s meeting.
Also this winter, events with more than 50 people will have to file an event safety plan with Pitkin County Public Health. The plan will lay out mitigation options depending on variables associated with the event.
Finally, hotels, lodges and others in the hospitality industry that take reservations from visitors will be required to let them know about the county’s Traveler Responsibility Code. The notification will allow guests to understand the restrictions before they arrive.
For 50% capacity restrictions to go into place at businesses and restaurants in town, Aspen Valley Hospital must be at a point where it suspends elective surgeries, according to the plan adopted Friday. Dave Ressler, AVH CEO, said that decision would mean the level of COVID-19 patients has increased to the point where the hospital must choose saving patients over making money.
“I’ve only done it once before in 30 years … and that was earlier in the pandemic,” Ressler said. “The analogy is cutting off our own air (money) supply.”
If that occurs, businesses with the 100% vaccinated employees and customers could remain at fully capacity, Sabella said.
“Eighty-one percent of the hospitalizations for COVID in the state are unvaccinated,” she said.
If the situation in Pitkin County continues to deteriorate and AVH must establish “hospital crisis standards of care,” the community would go into lockdown, travelers would be ordered home and only essential businesses would continue operating. The scenario would mean the hospital is receiving more patients than it can care for or transfer out, and must decide who gets the precious ICU beds and ventilators available, Sabella said.
Initial plans called for schools to be ordered to go remote if the lockdown scenario occurs. However, Dr. Jeannie Seybold, a board of health member, asked that schools be considered essential businesses and be given the option to remain open.
The plan approved Friday calls for schools to be required to consider remote learning if the lockdown scenario occurs, but not be required to implement it.
Board members also sought to differentiate between the “staffing crisis standards of care” implemented by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this week to help overwhelmed hospitals in other parts of the state cope with the surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, and the “hospital crisis standards of care,” which have not been implemented.
If Polis authorizes hospital crisis standards of care, each hospital that wants to do so must apply to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to be able to take the drastic step, Ressler said.
AVH is not experiencing the type of staffing issues that prompted Polis to issue the crisis standards order earlier this week, Ressler said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing rapidly across Colorado. Around 95% of statewide ICU beds were occupied as of Friday.
Modeling by a state epidemiologist shows that hospitalizations are expected to rise across the state into December and peak Jan. 1, Sabella said. The peak is expected to exceed the 1,847 peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations reached last winter, she said. Hospitalizations could reach more than 2,200 by then, according to the slide.
Jon Peacock, Pitkin County manager, praised the board of health plan Friday, though he said officials will be ready to change it if COVID-19 continues to be the unpredictable beast it’s proven to be in the past.
“I think these are the right triggers in terms of focusing on what we’re trying to protect,” he said. “We have a structure and a plan, but we need to be agile and respond to something we don’t see. I think we have a plan, and I don’t know what will happen.”