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Seeing Red: Aspen’s Christmas threatened by rising COVID cases

As numbers increase, avoiding state’s Red level will be “very challenging,” county epidemiologist says

A line of skiers snakes to the road from the Silver Queen Gondola at the base of Aspen Mountain on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen’s Christmas season may be turning Red for all the wrong reasons.

With COVID-19 cases continuing to skyrocket in Aspen and Pitkin County, the lucrative and critical weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s appeared to be hanging in the balance Friday as the next level of state-mandated local restrictions loom.

“It’s going to be very challenging to keep us out of Red (level restrictions),” Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist said in an interview Friday. “A big part of it is people have COVID fatigue and they start to take more risks.”



Red level status would mean no dine-in service at restaurants, no informal gatherings like dinner or holiday parties and no indoor events at all. Pitkin County is currently at “Orange-plus” level restrictions, but case numbers continue to climb, and with them the three metrics the state uses to determine which level of restrictions apply here.

Pitkin County reported an all-time daily high of 30 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, shattering the previous daily high of 22 set a few days before on Nov. 28. That’s an average of 14 cases per day, Vance said.



“If you look at our (epidemiological) curve, we have a steady incline,” he said. “And it’s moving up at a pretty rapid rate … (and) it’s not slowing down.”

The three metrics tracked by the state that determine a county’s level of restrictions include the positivity rate, the incidence rate and the hospitalization rate.

Pitkin County’s incidence rate, which is based on a population of 100,000 residents, has been in the Red level – above 500 – for more than a month and the number keeps rising. According to the state’s online COVID-19 Dial on Friday evening, Pitkin County’s incidence rate over the past two weeks stood at 844.8. According to data calculated locally by Vance, the incidence rate was 878 on Friday.

State-reported data tends to lag local data.

The positivity rate, calculated by dividing the total number of positive tests by the total number of tests performed, once looked safe but has been rising rapidly in the past week. Pitkin County’s positivity rate over the past two weeks, as of Friday evening, stood at 9.4%, according to the state Dial, though local data pegged it at 12%.

If the incidence rate hits 15% even for one day, the state will move Pitkin County to Red level restrictions, Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim public health director, said Friday.

The same goes for the hospitalization rate, she said. Pitkin County’s hospitalization rate has remained low, though with hospitals in Denver and the region filling up, that could change, Vance said. Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs was beginning to fill up with COVID patients as of Friday, he said.

“(Aspen Valley Hospital) will be affected,” he said. “That’s the piece to really drive home.”

If AVH approaches capacity, that means there will be little to no room left for regular emergencies like ski accidents, car crashes and heart attacks, Vance said. Preserving hospital capacity is the main thing public health authorities are trying to protect, Sabella said.

The hospital’s COVID rate was in the Yellow range Friday, with between one and two hospitalizations reported per day during the past two weeks, according to the state Dial. Local data indicated that no one was hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, though six people with COVID symptoms had been seen in the emergency room in the previous 24 hours and 13 hospital-affiliated health care workers were out with COVID symptoms.

“Red is on our horizon,” Sabella said. “It’s extreme concern that we have for the numbers we’re seeing.”

On Friday, county officials released more details on the new Traveler Affidavit Requirement, which goes into effect Dec. 14.

Vance said he thinks the county is beginning to see the first affects of the Thanksgiving week holiday, though the affects from the actual Thanksgiving Day gatherings have not yet hit.

“We’re seeing an increase of people who traveled,” he said.

Other reasons for the expanding number of cases here are workplace outbreaks and informal gatherings, Vance said. Public health officials have routinely seen informal gatherings of five, 10 or 15 people where sometimes 100% of the attendees test positive for COVID-19, he said.

Informal gatherings currently are limited to five people from no more than two households.

In addition, less people are complying with facemask mandates, which is problematic because prevalence of the disease is so high right now, he said. One out of every 40 Coloradans is contagious with COVID-19, according to the Colorado School of Public Health.

Vance urged people to get tested if any symptoms of sickness arise. He said some residents have thought recently they might have a sinus infection and it’s turned out to be COVID. There aren’t many other viruses or pathogens circulating at this time and there’s a lot of COVID around so it’s most likely the virus, he said.

Pitkin County and others have established free testing sites in Aspen, at the Aspen-Pitkin County airport, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. Information on those free testing sites and others in the area are available at https://covid19.pitkincounty.com/get-tested/.

Beyond that, Sabella urged people to associate only with members of their own household, wear masks and socially distance from others. Compliance with those measures will help stem the tide of transmission and keep the economy as open as possible.

“The message I want to convey is that now is the time to double down (on mitigation efforts),” Sabella said. “They will have an impact on (case numbers).”

Free Area COVID-19 Testing Sites

• Downtown Aspen

• Aspen-Pitkin County airport

• Snowmass Village

• Basalt

• Carbondale

• Glenwood Springs

• Go to https://covid19.pitkincounty.com/get-tested/ for more information about each site and how to make an appointment.


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