Virus reaches ‘community transmission’ in Aspen

Social distancing was put into effect during an Aspen City Council meeting to discuss the coronavirus pandemic at City Hall on Friday, March 13, 2020. The council passed a resolution declaring an emergency due to COVID-19.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Aspen-area community is now experiencing “community transmission” of the COVID-19 virus, two local public health officials said Friday.

That means the virus has spread among the local population — outside of the group of visiting Australians who were previously identified as the area’s only cases — and cannot be traced back to an original source, said Karen Koenemann, Pitkin County Public Health director.

“From what (the state public health department has) seen, … we have limited community spread in this community,” she said during a media briefing call Friday afternoon. “We know for certain that there’s community spread in Eagle County.

“And so, because of that, knowing it’s just a matter of time, we decided to be really proactive with Eagle and Garfield (counties) around this.”

The comment referenced a tri-county public health order issued late Thursday night forbidding gatherings of more than 50 people until April 8.

But the diagnosis of Aspen community transmission of the virus was not backed up by official test numbers of local Aspen or Pitkin County residents who have come up positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Koenemann said local public health officials hadn’t received test results back from the state lab from samples taken from at least 25 residents Wednesday and Thursday. She said she did not know when those results might become available.

Nonetheless, Aspen Ambulance Director Gabe Muething agreed that Aspen-area community transmission of the virus has occurred.

“We know at this point we do have community transmission,” Muething said during Friday’s media call.

Officials also are awaiting test results from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for the group of 10 Australians who tested “presumptive positive” for the virus earlier this week. The CDC must confirm the positive test before they are officially positive cases.

The group of 10 — plus three others who refused to be tested — remain in isolation in Aspen.

Muething and Koenemann, along with Alex Burchetta of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, are heading up the management team dealing with the virus in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Those officials and others have urged residents to take so-called “social distancing” measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including frequent hand-washing, keeping hands away from faces and staying home if residents feel sick. Those who are sick can treat themselves as if they have the flu.

However, those who feel like they have COVID-19 symptoms that are worsening should call 911, said Lori Maloy, chief clinical officer at Aspen Valley Hospital. If people with COVID-19 symptoms arrive at the hospital’s emergency room, they must call a number posted in the front of the hospital, and they will be taken into the facility through a backdoor after health care workers prepare to receive them, she said.

Despite local schools closing for the next two weeks, most public events canceled and general life in Aspen derailed for at least the near future, Koenemann praised local efforts to contain the disease.

“We are one of the most aggressive communities in the country,” she said. “Even though we can’t prevent widespread transmission in our community, what we’re trying to prevent is explosive transmission.”

Pitkin County Joe DiSalvo agreed.

“We are doing more than any other county when it comes to this,” he said. “We are very aggressive and I think it’s really going to help us. The best way to stop it is to get in front of it early and stop its spread.”

DiSalvo also said he and other officials are aware of the devastating economic impact the virus will have on Aspen and Pitkin County’s economy. However, he said that with just a month left in the ski season, “if we’ve got to have it happen, now is a decent time for it to happen.”

“I’m grateful it’s not Christmas time,” he said, noting that his wife owns a local business in Aspen that will undoubtedly feel the economic pain. “It hurts significantly, but it’s not as devastating as if it happened mid-season.”

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