Pitkin County’s incidence rate is 3rd highest in Colorado | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County’s incidence rate is 3rd highest in Colorado

Officials concerned about what short-term picture looks like for January

With one of the highest COVID-19 incidence rates in the state and the viral implications of Christmas and New Year’s festivities still to come, Pitkin County’s near-future prognosis appears forbidding.

“Most public health experts across the country are identifying January as the grimmest month of the pandemic,” Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of concern over Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s.

“The short-term picture for the next month is not too promising.”

Pitkin County’s COVID numbers for the period between Saturday to Tuesday are some of the worst of the pandemic, according to local epidemiology data. The public health department received reports of 112 new positive cases during those four days, causing the incidence rate, based on population, to hit a stratospheric high of 1,824 on Sunday.

“Pitkin County now has the third-highest 14-day incidence rate in the state,” according to a Monday note on the county’s daily epidemiology report.

The incidence rate was above 1,700 on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, though it dropped to 1,593 on Wednesday, according to the local data. Only Bent and Crowley counties in the southeastern corner of the state had higher incidence rates, with both topping 2,000 as of Wednesday, according to the state COVID Dial.

By comparison, anything above 350 is considered above the Red level restriction threshold.

The spike in Pitkin County cases also prompted the county’s positivity rate — which is based on the total number of positive tests divided by the total number of tests conducted — to hit a high of 10.9% on Friday, and remain around 10% for the following three days. Anything above 10% is considered Orange level restrictions, while 15% and above is considered Red level restrictions.

The positivity rate among children in Pitkin County has increased substantially in the past week, from 7.4% on Dec. 23 to 10.9% on Tuesday, for an overall rate of 10.2% over the past two weeks, according to the local data.

Pitkin County’s hospitalization rate — the third metric tracked by the state — remains comfortable, though 10 people with COVID-19 symptoms were seen at Aspen Valley Hospital on Tuesday, according to the local data. Three of four ICU beds were available as well, according to the data.

Beyond the rapidly increasing numbers, the troubling development for local public health officials was that Pitkin County’s neighbors were seeing the opposite trend.

Eagle County’s 14-day incidence rate, for example, was 553 as of Wednesday, while Summit County’s was 742 and Garfield County was at 1,003, according to the state’s COVID Dial.

“Pitkin County continues to see an increase in cases,” Vance said. “It used to be the opposite. Now it’s flipped on its head. We are really trying to dive into why that is the case.”

The answer remains elusive, he said.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock was a bit more optimistic Wednesday that further restrictions put into place by the board of health starting Dec. 22, along with a traveler affidavit program, could bring numbers down in the near future.

“We really need two weeks of a data run since the last restrictions to see what impacts there are,” he said. “It’s still too early to tell.”

As for the trends in neighboring counties, Peacock said that Pitkin County’s numbers have generally lagged behind those other counties by two to three weeks. He said he’s hoping the county continues to follow that trend and the numbers start falling.

The one bright spot in the latest batch of COVID numbers in Pitkin County is a drop in the percentage of positive cases attributed to community spread, or those cases where the point of transmission cannot be determined, Vance said. That rate has fallen from 35% of all cases on Dec. 16 to 23% on Tuesday, according to local epidemiology data.

“(That’s) the lowest since September,” Vance said. “(It means) we are identifying the (origin of) majority of cases we find.”

Increased local testing, while driving up case numbers, also is identifying more asymptomatic cases, he said. Previously, patients in 97% of positive cases in Pitkin County displayed symptoms of the disease. Now, 86% report symptoms, an important drop when talking about a virus where 15% to 20% of those infected register no symptoms.

“That’s sort of the one upside to this data,” he said.

Beyond the travails of the next month or so, the rest of the winter and early spring is “anyone’s guess,” Vance said.

“February and March could continue to be dire and challenging, some say,” he said. “While others say vaccination of health care workers (and others) will bring case counts down.”

Stickers for those vaccinated wait in the observation room in Community Health Services to be handed out post-vaccination in Aspen on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The longer-term picture brings hope, though questions remain. Vance said he hopes the vaccine will be widely available to most people by late spring or early summer, though achieving “herd immunity” is contingent on how many are vaccinated.

The other main question involves how effective the vaccine is in tamping down transmission, and whether the vaccine blocks symptoms or blocks both symptoms and transmission.

In other words, Vance said, if a person who received the prescribed two doses of the vaccine is later exposed to the virus, does the vaccine merely block the person from feeling the effects of the disease while allowing the person to freely transmit it? Or does it prevent both, he said.

“That could lead to quarantine if the person is exposed again,” Vance said. “It’s an important question.”

However, he said the public should have “great confidence in the vaccine and the protection it will provide.”

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