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Rising Covid cases in Pitkin County could mean more restrictions

Electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020.
Coronavirus Outbreak

Pandemic complacency and fatigue amid a rising number of Pitkin County COVID-19 cases has led to stark warnings from local officials in the past week about the potential consequences of more local virus cases.

Most corners of local life — including restaurants, event gatherings, churches, gyms and sports leagues — would be affected if the state forces Pitkin County to move from Level 2 “medium restrictions” to Level 3 “high risk” restrictions, according to those officials.

“I know people are already tired and they hate the COVID and they hate the restrictions,” Steve Child, the chairman of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, said Tuesday during a work session. “But that’s sort of our new reality for right now.”

Child warned that it may be a full year before any vaccine can be manufactured and distributed widely enough to be an effective deterrent to the disease.

Jon Peacock, Pitkin County’s manager, urged county residents and people who work in the county to remain diligent.

“Just like the rest of the state, our numbers … our 14-day trend continue to go up,” he said. “We remain in Level 2 … but our incidence rate is inching up to get closer to that next level — Level 3.”

If Pitkin County moves to Level 3 on the state of Colorado’s “Covid Dial,” life and the economy here will be significantly affected, said Laryssa Dandeneau, COVID-19 program administrator for Pitkin County Public Health.

Restaurants would be limited to 25% indoor capacity with a maximum of 50 people, she said. Indoor permitted events would go from a maximum of 100 people to a cap of 25 people, while outdoor events would be capped at 75 people instead of 175 currently allowed.

Retail stores would be allowed only 25% of capacity, while gyms and sports leagues would be limited to virtual events or getting together outdoors in groups of less than 10, Dandeneau said.

Public health sent out a notice to all sectors of the economy last week — businesses, places of worship, recreation leagues, event industries, chambers of commerce, museums and restaurants — warning of the increasing positive case numbers and the possible consequences.

“We are asking the community to collectively take preventative action to keep us moving forward, not backwards,” Dandeneau wrote in the notice.

The community was “alarmed” at the notice, but public health officials want to be transparent about what is happening and what could happen, Dandeneau said Wednesday.

“The whole reason the communication went out was not necessarily to scare people but so everyone knows the potential impact (the rising numbers) could have on them and everyone around them,” she said.

Pitkin County recently aligned with the state on the “Corona Dial,” which measures each county by three metrics over the preceding two weeks: cumulative incidence rate, positivity rate and new hospitalizations. If any one of those areas trips metric triggers — even for one day — the state will step in and give a county two weeks to bring the level back down. If that doesn’t work, new restrictions are put in place.

The next level after Level 3 is a stay-at-home lockdown.

In two of those metrics — positivity rate and new hospitalizations — Pitkin County ranks in the lowest and most difficult level to achieve on the state’s scale, known as the “Protect Our Neighbors” level, according to recent data. The positivity rate is 2.9%, according to the state dial, while Aspen Valley Hospital has had no more than two hospitalizations per day in the past two weeks.

The incidence rate — as Peacock said earlier this week — is the concerning metric and the one that is keeping Pitkin County at Level 2 and threatening to kick it up to Level 3. Counties must keep the rate under 175 per 100,000 population to remain in Level 2, according to state guidelines.

On Sept. 21, Pitkin County’s incidence rate stood at 73.2, according to Phyllis Mattice, assistant county manager, who’s been keeping a running tally based on the daily Corona Dial. On Oct. 1, the incidence rate was at 95.7.

On Monday, it jumped to 152.1, and Thursday it stood at 169, according to Mattice and Pitkin County’s information on the state’s Corona Dial.

As of Thursday, Pitkin County reported 266 positive cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak began in early March, with two cases reported Thursday and a 14-day total of 27 cases, according to the county’s COVID statistics posted on the Public Health Department’s website.

One caveat with the incidence rate that Peacock and other county officials have taken pains to point out and try to remedy is that it’s based on Pitkin County’s official Census population of just under 18,000 residents. The county’s actual population can vary widely from month to month when second homeowners and visitors are in town, so that may be skewing the numbers, officials have said.

Still, the increased incidence rate also triggered warnings this week from county board members.

“People are letting their guard down,” Commissioner Greg Poschmann said. “They’ve not seen a significant change so they’re all relaxed. We all do it.

“Everyone needs to understand the consequences if we go under a stricter order.”

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said she’s worried about Halloween and that with some cancellations — the North 40, for example, will not host trick-or-treaters this year — she thinks people are simply making other plans.

“I continue to think Halloween will be a real test for our community’s stamina,” she said Tuesday. “It’s a big holiday around here.”

Commissioner George Newman said he’s worried about the holiday season and the colder weather driving people inside.

“There is a really dangerous potential for surges,” Newman said. “It’s a tremendous challenge to keep a handle on COVID. People need to realize this is not going away until a vaccine is distributed.”

Peacock and commissioners urged people to avoid large gatherings, practice social distancing, wear a facemask in public, practice good hygiene, stay home when sick and get tested immediately if COVID symptoms arise.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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