Vaccines likely to protect against high summer case counts in Aspen area
Nearly all local COVID-19 restrictions to become recommendations May 28, except indoor face masks
Local public health officials do not think that large numbers of visitors to Aspen and Pitkin County this summer will result in sky-high numbers of COVID-19 cases like it did over the winter.
While large numbers of visitors yielded increased local case counts in December and January, public health did not see a corresponding rise in cases when large spring break crowds descended in late February and March, said Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist.
“Really, that’s the affect of the vaccines,” Vance said Thursday during the county’s Board of Health meeting. “We saw (large numbers of visitors) play less of a role.”
That’s not to say public health officials don’t expect case counts to rise — daily counts are currently hovering in single digits — when summer tourists pack Aspen restaurants, trails and concert venues in June, July and August.
“We know we will see an increase at some point,” Vance said. “The question is how big of an increase. I really wouldn’t expect case counts to get as high (as December and January).”
Vaccines are the key to lower COVID-19 transmission, he said. Once counties are able to vaccinate about 65% or more of residents, “they see the huge impact vaccines make,” Vance said.
“Once they reach (65% to 75% vaccinated), that incidence rate is plummeting,” he said. “It really emphasizes the importance of vaccines.”
Pitkin County has fully vaccinated an estimated 59% of the approximately 18,000 people who live in the county, while 70% have received at least one vaccine dose, said Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim public health director.
Pitkin County will continue to follow the Green level restrictions outlined in the state’s COVID-19 Dial until May 27. After that, things in Aspen and Pitkin County will change relatively drastically, according to action taken Thursday by the board of health.
First and foremost, on May 28, all those COVID-19-related restrictions and requirements that frequently changed over the past 14 months according to various state and local “dials” will become recommendations. That means no more capacity restrictions at stores, restaurants, gyms, offices and other gathering spots.
Event safety plans will become integrated into the permitting process for each municipality or county, while business safety plans will become advisory. The 5 Star Business Program and the Traveler Responsibility Code will be discontinued.
The only time that state and local public health officials will impose restrictions is if local or regional hospital ICU or patient capacity approaches 85%. In that case, the state public health department will track down the source of the rising infections and impose the restrictions on the appropriate county.
Face masks are the one common thread that will continue through the summer. The health board decided Thursday that everyone over the age of 2 must continue to wear masks indoors and on public transportation.
But a Thursday announcement from the CDC added a significant exception to that rule. Those who are vaccinated no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors or maintain social distancing unless visiting medical facilities, jails or prisons or traveling in public, according to the CDC announcement.
A Colorado state public health order says that individuals can remove masks indoors if at least 80% of attendees have shown proof of being vaccinated and the rest provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. Local public health officials recommended that Pitkin County align with that order, Sabella said.
“We see it as a protective measure for settings where indoor masking is hard to enforce,” she said.
On Thursday, members of the board of health voted to make it mandatory that those who are not vaccinated at such maskless events present a recent negative COVID-19 test.
“I think it’s a great incentive for vaccination,” said Dr. Jeannie Seybold, a board member.
Businesses or event organizers who hold maskless events must provide a mechanism not only to verify attendees’ vaccine status but also to show that such information was checked, Sabella said.
Proof can be a vaccine card, a picture of the vaccine card on a phone or immunization records, she said.
The rule will apply to all public and private spaces except personal residences and likely will involve ticketed events, invite-only events or office situations. Requiring vaccine proof at places where the population is always in flux — like restaurants — would be far more difficult, Sabella said.
Pitkin County’s Public Health Department will continue to monitor case counts and perform case investigation and contact tracing as well as issuing quarantine and isolation orders, she said.
“We can be optimistic now,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who was elected chair of the board of health Thursday. “We’re gonna have a great summer and a great spring.”
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