How positive coronavirus cases are counted in Pitkin County depends on where the person is from | AspenTimes.com
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How positive coronavirus cases are counted in Pitkin County depends on where the person is from

People explore downtown Aspen on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Whenever someone tests positive for COVID-19, either at Aspen Valley Hospital or at a local physician’s office, Pitkin County Public Health is notified and soon begins its investigation into how the person may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and with whom they have recently come into close contact.

While county officials contact everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in Pitkin County, how positive cases are counted and tracked depends on where the person is from and how long that person has been in the county, according to Josh Vance, an epidemiologist working with Pitkin County Public Health.

“The tricky part here in Aspen and other resort communities is we have individuals who are second-home owners and we also have individuals who come here and stay here for a long period of time,” Vance said.

“We want to be fair to the other counties and jurisdictions where these people come from, so if someone comes here for a long period of time, it doesn’t make sense for us to send that (positive COVID-19 case) to a different state or a different county.”

Generally speaking, confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths are included in the county of residence of each deceased person, as noted on the Colorado Department of Health and Environment website.

That means if an out-of-state resident tests positive for COVID-19 in Colorado, those cases are not typically included in Colorado’s COVID-19 case data and instead reported to the person’s home state.

“Removing out-of-state cases ensures cases are not counted twice (e.g. in both states),” a statement from CDPHE emailed to The Aspen Times on Wednesday reads. “International cases are still reported as Colorado cases, but not assigned to a county.”

In Pitkin County, however, because of its large number of second-home owners and long-term visitors, if a person tests positive for COVID-19 and is not a full-time Pitkin resident but has stayed or plans to stay within the county for at least four weeks, health officials include them in the county’s confirmed COVID-19 case data and have done so since the beginning of the local crisis, Vance said.

“If they’re here for more than a month, it’s likely that they were exposed here or they may have exposed some people here, and so it just makes more sense for us to handle that investigation and make sure we get all of that data,” Vance said.

If a non-resident tests positive for COVID-19 and tells Pitkin County officials they are staying less than four weeks, then the COVID-19 case is reported and counted in the person’s county of residence, he said. And throughout much of the COVID-19 crisis so far, once Pitkin officials determined the local contacts the nonresident interacted with and reported the positive case to the appropriate jurisdiction, that case was deleted and no longer tracked by the county in an effort to ensure the case was not “double counted.”

However, Vance said Pitkin County health officials have recently received a lot of public inquiries and interest about how many nonresident visitors have tested positive for COVID-19 while staying in Pitkin County.

That’s why starting July 13, officials began tracking the number of non-resident, more short-term visitors who test positive for COVID-19.

“We’ve been keeping separate tabs on those (positive COVID-19 cases) that we transfer out because we’ve received a lot of requests for this data, and we understand those requests; we get the concerns and the questions,” Vance said. “Our intent is to try to eventually get that information out to the public so that they’re aware of what we’re seeing on our end.”

Because of the increased interest, officials also are tracking the longer-term non-resident COVID-19 case numbers — which have mainly reflected part-time residents who test positive for the coronavirus disease — as a subset of the overall county case data, and are working through how they can present all of the nonresident COVID-19 case data in an accurate way to the public, Vance said.

Since July 9, 13 nonresidents who have stayed in Pitkin County at least four weeks have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Pitkin County data.

Since July 13, 15 nonresidents who have stayed less than four weeks have tested positive for COVID-19, county data shows.

But how do nonresident visitors contribute to the local COVID-19 crisis exactly?

Vance said it’s complicated. These nonresidents could have been exposed to the novel coronavirus while in the county, or were exposed before coming to the county and just developed symptoms here.

And Pitkin County health officials also assume there are nonresidents who were exposed to or exposed others to the coronavirus while visiting Pitkin County but tested positive for COVID-19 in their home county or elsewhere — which officials would not hear about but locals might if asked to quarantine by out-of-county contact tracers.

“We might have individuals here who are quarantined but were asked to quarantine by a different jurisdiction,” Vance said. “That does happen and it’s just not possible for us to track that because of all of the different jurisdictions that are involved.”

With so many moving parts and contributors to the local spread of COVID-19, Pitkin County health officials have focused their efforts on tracking residents and extended-stay nonresidents who test positive for the coronavirus disease here, Vance said. That is the most direct approach to contain and mitigate the spread, he said.

However, Vance said officials also keep close tabs on confirmed COVID-19 case numbers and trends in Eagle and Garfield counties, including Eagle and Garfield residents who work in Pitkin County and test positive for COVID-19; look at how many vehicles come over the bridge into Aspen each day, along with daily flight and lodging information; and ask COVID-19 patients where they feel they may have been exposed to better understand the larger picture of coronavirus spread in Pitkin County.

Regardless, Vance emphasized that there isn’t significant spread happening among people who travel to Pitkin County; the majority of confirmed Pitkin County COVID-19 cases are among Pitkin County residents and not associated with someone who is traveling.

“While we do have our fair share of nonresident cases, I don’t think our data is suggesting that we have any sort of significant spread among those who are traveling here,” Vance said.

“We’re still seeing a fair amount of spread among Pitkin County residents and so we still have to do our part. Even if we were to see a significant increase in those who are from a different county or a different state or a different country, we still have to remember that it’s important for us to maintain ‘The Five Commitments’ as Pitkin County residents and to make sure we’re doing our part to prevent spread.”

As of Thursday evening, 162 positive COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Pitkin County, with two new cases confirmed Thursday, according to the county’s COVID-19 website.

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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