Pitkin County’s COVID cases declining faster than officials predicted
Local incident rate still high but “we didn’t expect it to drop so quickly”
Pitkin County’s incidence rate of COVID-19 has dropped so dramatically in the past 11 days that it could reach levels that allow indoor restaurant dining by next week, officials said Tuesday.
The incidence rate per 100,000 residents was hovering around 3,000 for a significant part of January until the Pitkin County Board of Health shut down indoor dining Jan. 17 and moved the county fully into Red level restrictions. But as of Tuesday, that rate had dropped to 1,312, signifying a large decline in positive cases.
“We’re on pace to be below 700 in early February and I don’t think any of us thought that would happen so quickly,” Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist, said Tuesday. “I’ll be honest – I think not having indoor dining plays a role.”
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock echoed that news Tuesday during his weekly COVID-19 update to county commissioners, though he added a note of caution.
“Even with the huge improvement, Pitkin County still has the second-highest incidence rate in the state,” he said. “But it is headed in the right direction. If we continue with these trends and don’t see a tick up, we could hit the 700 threshold in the first week of February.”
The 700 threshold is important because that is number the Board of Health adopted Jan. 11 as the level that would move the county out of Red level restrictions. In other words, if the incidence rate drops below 700 and has been declining for 14 consecutive days, Pitkin County could move back to Orange level restrictions, which allows 25% capacity for indoor dining.
As of Tuesday, the county had seen 11 consecutive days of the declining incidence rate, Peacock said. However, he repeatedly reiterated to commissioners that 14 days of decline won’t matter until the incidence rate drops below 700 according to the criteria adopted by the board of health.
Pitkin County’s positivity rate — which tracks the number of positive cases based on the total number of tests conducted — also has dropped significantly, according to local epidemiology data. That rate was over 12% two weeks ago and on Tuesday had dropped to 7.6%. Also, the positivity rate among children in the county has decreased from above 12% two weeks ago to 5.8% on Tuesday, according to the local data.
“Probably the biggest change is in the positivity rate with children,” Peacock said.
All of that means the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county has gone down dramatically.
“We were seeing about 40 cases a day on average in early January,” Vance said. “And now we’re seeing eight-and-a-half cases per day. That’s a drastic decline from where we were. We didn’t expect it to drop so quickly.”
It’s not yet clear exactly why the number of positive COVID-19 cases have decreased, he said. While the lack of indoor dining likely played a role, some visitors left town when the county went into Red, while other possible visitors probably canceled visits, Vance said.
Kurt Dahl, the county’s environmental health director, agreed with Vance and said while the decision to close restaurants’ dining rooms was controversial, “certainly that is part of” the decline. And while there are fewer people in Aspen, the harsher restrictions also may have led to behavioral changes from those who, for example, were throwing private parties, he said.
Peacock pointed out other possible reasons for the drop, including that January is generally slower in terms of visitors and that there are no special events scheduled that would usually draw visitors.
The county’s hospitalization rate is the one that’s now causing a bit of concern, Peacock said. Three of the four ICU beds at Aspen Valley Hospital were filled with COVID patients as of Tuesday, Vance said.
“Luckily, there’s still plenty of room at AVH,” he said.
Dave Ressler, the hospital’s CEO, confirmed Tuesday that the facility remained in good shape. The number of health care workers out with COVID-related symptoms was improving, and a separate ICU bed was available for a non-COVID patient that might need it, he said.
“The bottomline is we’re not feeling stressed,” Ressler said.
In other COVID-related news Tuesday:
• Pitkin County submitted an application Friday to the state public health department for the 5-Star Business Program, Peacock said. Local officials are expecting the state to approve the application later this week, with businesses possibly able to begin applying by Thursday.
The program will allow approved businesses to operate under the next restriction level below the one currently observed in the county. For example, if the county moves back to Orange, which allows 25% capacity for indoor dining, an approved 5-Star business could operate under Yellow restrictions, which allow 50% indoor dining capacity.
• A $1.3 million county program to provide grants up to $25,000 to local businesses affected by COVID-19 should be up and running by the end of the week, Peacock said. The online application for the program should be ready by Friday, he said. For more information go to aspencommunityfoundation.org.
• After receiving zero doses of COVID-19 vaccine last week, the state provided 200 doses this week, Peacock said. They will be distributed Friday to residents 70 years old and up at the Aspen Music Tent.
Once that group is fully vaccinated, officials have worked out the next tiers of people who will receive the vaccine, he said. First will be teachers and school/early child care workers, followed by grocery store employees, food pantry workers and others who work in food distribution. After that will come those who work in critical infrastructure such as utilities, essential human services, public transit and postal/parcel employees.
• Aspen’s free COVID-19 testing site located behind City Hall in the downtown core remains up and running, Peacock said. Officials have been able to pivot away from the Curative tests previously used, which the state cautioned could provide false negatives, to another test from a company called Microgen.
Results from that saliva test are generally available within 48-to-72 hours. Peacock said he received a result recently in under 48 hours.
• New variants of COVID-19 from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil that have popped up in other parts of the country and the world are causing concern among local public health officials. Two of those variants are thought to be more transmissible than earlier strains of the virus, and the CDC has said they could become the dominant strains in the U.S. by mid-March, Vance said.
Pitkin County Public Health has been sending samples of local positive cases to the state public health department for the past three weeks, though none has yet been detected here, he said. Officials are awaiting the results of the latest batch of samples.
If and when those variants are confirmed in Pitkin County, local rules about quarantine and isolation could change, Dahl said. The quarantine period likely will go back to 14 days if that happens, from the current 7-to-10-day quarantine now mostly observed.
In addition, the new variants could change social distancing practices as well because the standard of exposure could change, Vance said. Exposure now is generally thought to take place if a person is within six feet of a positive person for 15 minutes.
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Nearly 100 locally-owned businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been awarded grants from a pool of $1.2 million in relief funds from Pitkin County.