Simpler COVID-19 strategies proposed for upcoming winter in Aspen, Pitkin County
Board of Health considering event safety plans, return of Traveler Responsibility
While Aspen’s upcoming winter season will contain echoes of last winter’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies, vaccines and booster shots will likely allow for a simpler set of guidelines this time around, officials said Thursday.
The two main thresholds proposed to trigger either capacity restrictions or a total shutdown would be reached when Aspen Valley Hospital suspends elective surgeries and, if that doesn’t stem the tide, when the hospital has to resort to “crisis standards of care,” said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director, and Dave Ressler, the hospital’s CEO.
“The triggers are really about managing the hospital capacity,” Sabella told members of the Pitkin County Board of Health during their regular monthly meeting Thursday. “The measures are tied to the very important goal that the hospital has the capacity to care for COVID patients” as well as those who need regular medical care.
Other winter mitigation strategies will include Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate, which probably isn’t going anywhere, while public health officials are suggesting that mandatory safety plans for every event with more than 50 people be brought back this winter and that visitors would again be made aware of Pitkin County’s COVID-19-related restrictions through a Traveler Responsibility Code, Sabella said.
The guidelines were brought forward Thursday after numerous conversations with different members of the community, including the hospitality industry, the Aspen Skiing Co., the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, she said.
“We all have the same goal for a successful winter where we keep transmission down, protect the hospital and remain open,” Sabella said.
The public will be allowed to comment on the proposed restrictions online at Pitkin County’s COVID-19 website at covid19.pitkincounty.com until Oct. 31. The public comment will be provided to members of the board of health, who will make the final decision on the winter mitigation measures at their November meeting.
If Aspen Valley Hospital gets to the point where it must suspend elective surgeries so staff can take care of COVID-19 patients, the proposed mitigation says indoor capacity restrictions in Aspen and Pitkin County would fall to 50%, or require 100% of customers to be vaccinated. Events would be restricted as well, though specifics were not provided Thursday. Schools would not be included in those indoor capacity restrictions.
Aspen Mayor Torre, a member of the board of health, said Thursday he did not believe that the suspension of elective surgeries was a good enough measurement for the hospital being in trouble and that such a level could be reached simply because of a lack of staffing.
Ressler, however, said that such a milestone would not be taken lightly because the hospital makes most of its money from elective surgeries. The step to suspend them was akin to “literally choking off the oxygen to the organization,” he said.
“We’re all having staffing challenges,” Ressler said, noting that the only time he’s had to suspend elective surgeries in his career was in March 2020. “When we decide to suspend elective surgeries, it’s a major decision. When we get to that point … it’s a clear signal the hospital is in trouble.”
The capacity restrictions would be removed when elective surgeries are reinstated.
If the situation gets worse and AVH has to resort to “crisis standards of care,” the proposal is that Pitkin County would move to a stay at home order for most residents, travelers would be ordered to return home, only essential businesses would be allowed to open, all events would be canceled and schools would operate remotely.
“There would be much more severe mitigation measures at that point in time,” Sabella said.
As for the indoor mask mandate, there’s no expiration date, she said.
The requirement for everyone ages 2 and older will only disappear if the county logs 21 consecutive days with a COVID-19 incidence rate at 50 or below per 100,000 residents. However, it will reappear again if Pitkin County experiences five consecutive days when the incidence rate is above 50.
As of Wednesday, Pitkin County’s incidence rate was 146, the first time it’s dropped below 150 in weeks.
“We are still seeing a high transmission rate,” Sabella said. “There’s been a slow tick downwards.”
However, Sabella and Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, said despite the still-high incidence rate, Pitkin County’s mandatory indoor mask rule is working.
Vance displayed a graph for board of health members Thursday showing that Pitkin County’s incidence rate was well above the state incidence rate before the mask mandate was introduced Sept. 16. Since then, however, the county’s incidence rate has dropped below the state incidence rate, which has begun to tick up, according to the graph.
Also, requiring masks in schools also has led to a lower percentage of COVID-19 cases in children ages 0 to 19 in Pitkin County than statewide, Vance said.
“There was a sudden drop in incidence when the mask mandate went into effect,” he said. “The state has not seen that kind of drop.”
Event safety plans and the use of the Traveler Responsibility Code are proposed to be in use between Dec. 1 and May 1.
Event safety plans would be required for all events with 50 or more people, and all attendees would need to be vaccinated or have had a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter. Other mitigation strategies would be tied to events depending on where they are held, how many are scheduled to attend and what kind of social distancing rules could be implemented.
The Traveler Responsibility Code would inform tourists coming to Aspen what is expected of them when they arrive. Last year, the public health order required hotels to inform travelers of those rules.
“We heard feedback that the Traveler Responsibility Code was beneficial to people coming here,” Sabella said.
The hospitality group helping to come up with the winter guidelines is still debating how the Traveler Responsibility Code will be distributed this season, she said.
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After a COVID-19 outbreak related to youth and adult hockey games in Aspen spiked local case numbers and incidence rates last week, the rate of transmission dropped significantly this week.