Pitkin County’s COVID rate skyrockets as omicron spread continues across country

Cases in county have more than tripled in past seven days

A day after public health officials reported the arrival of the omicron variant in Pitkin County, local COVID-19 cases shot through the roof, according to the latest county statistics.

And while the 145 cases in the past seven days as of Tuesday haven’t been confirmed as omicron and probably won’t be for two weeks, the quickly booming numbers in Pitkin and Eagle counties almost certainly indicate the presence of the highly contagious new variant, said Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist.

“We more than tripled case counts over the last seven days,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “The CDC just noted that the majority of cases in the U.S. already are omicron. It’s happened extremely fast.

“The quick and sharp increase is similar to what happened in South Africa, the U.K. and New York. It’s exactly what we’re seeing here.”

Eagle County had the highest incidence rate in the state Tuesday, and “truthfully we’re not far behind,” Vance said.

Just two weeks ago, some members of the Pitkin County Board of Health were patting themselves on the back after the county became one of only two in the state with an incidence rate below 100 per 100,000. The board instituted the current indoor mask mandate Sept. 16, which was given much of the credit for the falling case numbers that occurred around and after Thanksgiving.

But with a virus this resilient and unpredictable, hubris was bound to come knocking. Two weeks later and it’s here at the door.

Pitkin County’s COVID-19 incidence rate gradually began creeping up again into the CDC’s red or “high” transmission level over the past two weeks, hitting a high of 186 per 100,000 Saturday after decreasing post-Thanksgiving for about a week, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboard.

Then on Sunday, the number of cases exploded.

The incidence rate jumped from 186 on Saturday to 287 on Sunday to 349 on Monday. The corresponding number of COVID-19 cases that caused those numbers included a seven-day total that hit 33 on Saturday, jumped to 51 on Sunday and 62 on Monday, according to the online dashboard.

Those numbers include only cases among Pitkin County residents, though cases among people from outside the county also have increased. The county reported 17 out of county cases in the seven day period ending Monday, for example, according to the dashboard.

Tuesday was even worse.

The county logged 145 new COVID-19 cases in the seven-day period ending Tuesday, including 86 residents, 26 out of county cases and 26 more people contact tracers had not yet had a chance to interview, Vance said.

“It’s been very busy the past couple days,” he said. “The sudden and rapid increase in cases is what was so unexpected. We were in no way expecting (it).”

Officially, Pitkin County still has just one case of omicron. Results from the state public health lab’s sequencing process to analyze positive samples takes about two weeks from the time the lab receives the sample, Vance said.

The positivity rate in Pitkin County — or the number of tests that turn out positive for the virus — also was headed steeply up. A week ago the positivity rate was at 7%. As of Monday, it was at 14.2%, according to the online dashboard.

The sudden increases are likely due to the transmissibility of omicron and the increasing numbers of Christmas season tourists and visitors in Aspen and Pitkin County, Vance said.

What’s not yet clear is how the rapidly increasing numbers will affect statewide and local hospitals. The percentage of acute care and ICU beds in use across Colorado remained above 90% as of Monday, the vast majority of which were unvaccinated.

Aspen Valley Hospital remained mostly comfortable as of Tuesday — the hospital’s ability to transfer patients has been under a “cautious” flag for several weeks — though that might be about to change, said Dave Ressler, AVH CEO.

“We do have a rapidly climbing number of staff exhibiting symptoms or testing positive and we are very concerned,” Ressler said Tuesday. “It’s reflective of what’s happening in the community. We all feel the affect of a surge in cases.”

Essential care staff are part of the surging numbers of staff testing positive, which could lead the hospital, in consultation with local public health officials, to move to cautious when it comes to staffing, he said. That decision will be made Wednesday afternoon.

Hospital officials are not yet concerned about COVID-19 admissions, though people with symptoms have begun showing up at the emergency room, Ressler said.

“My sense is that we’re at the beginning of an increasing trend,” he said.

Ressler urged people to take advantage of the protection offered by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“Vaccines with boosters are what make the difference,” he said. “I’m concerned about the unvaccinated and the demand they’re about to place on the health care system in the country and at Aspen Valley Hospital.”

Gov. Jared Polis echoed those sentiments Tuesday.

“The simple fact is that over a thousand people are in our hospitals right now and 860 of them have not yet made the choice to get vaccinated,” he said in a news release. “The omicron variant is rapidly rising. It’s critical that everyone gets three doses of the vaccine.”

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