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Whiplash COVID changes affect local outlook on virus

Pitkin County health director: ‘It’s clear that delta is what’s going on here’

When it comes to COVID-19, Pitkin County’s numbers are increasing and easily within new CDC guidelines recommending indoor masks for everyone, including those who’ve been vaccinated, an official said Wednesday.

“The numbers are not heading in the right direction,” said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director. “It’s a fair headline.”

Pitkin County Public Health identified a total of 59 new positive cases of COVID-19 between July 23 and Wednesday, according to Josh Vance, county epidemiologist. Of those, 28 cases involved Pitkin County residents and 31 were out of county residents, he said.



The county’s seven-day incidence rate of 157.6 per 100,000 people only includes the 28 local cases, Vance said.

Between July 15 and July 21, Pitkin County reported 24 positive new cases of the virus, of which nine were county residents and 15 involved visitors from outside the county. That is a 211% increase week to week.




The Centers for Disease Control released updated guidelines Tuesday around indoor masking recommending that anyone in an area with an “elevated” level of virus transmission should wear a mask indoors. That means residents who live anywhere with a positivity rate of more than 50 cases per 100,000 people should wear masks indoors, Sabella said.

Local public health officials support the CDC’s new indoor mask recommendations, she said.

The CDC also released a county-by-county map of the United States, which classifies Pitkin County as having a “substantial” rate of COVID-19 transmission. Pitkin County’s own COVID-19 dashboard rated the local transmission rate as “moderate” Wednesday because of the rising case numbers and positivity rate.

Pitkin County’s dashboard also says that 73% of intensive care unit beds in Colorado’s central mountains were in use as of Wednesday, though Aspen Valley Hospital remained in the “comfortable” range and had not had a COVID-19 admission in the past two weeks. If the regional ICU bed use reaches 85%, state public health officials conduct a regional review of the situation, according to the dashboard.

The increased case numbers are likely the result of the COVID-19 delta variant, which is more transmissible, can infect people who have already been vaccinated and can be spread by those who are already vaccinated, Sabella said. And while Pitkin County has so far detected only 11 cases of the delta variant, according to Wednesday’s dashboard, those numbers don’t include last week’s cases, and probably other previous COVID-19 positives, because testing for the variant lags and takes time, she said.

“It’s clear that delta is what’s going on here,” Sabella said. “We do know that delta is becoming more predominant in Pitkin County.”

Despite the fact that people who have been vaccinated can catch the delta variant, vaccinations are the only way out of the pandemic and also provide a layer of protection that usually means people don’t become ill enough to die or require hospitalization.

“Vaccines are still incredibly effective,” Sabella said. “They are the best thing we can do.”

If cases continue to rise, the Pitkin County Board of Health could consider an indoor mask mandate or recommendation at its next meeting Aug. 12, she said.

“We will definitely talk about mask policies,” Sabella said. “The most pressing is how it relates to schools.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC both are recommending that kids and school staff attend school with masks even if they are vaccinated.

Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh said earlier this month that ASD will not mandate vaccines for students and does not plan on implementing quarantines but is still evaluating mask policies for the 2021-22 school year.

Pitkin County Board of Health Chairman Greg Poschman — who also is a county commissioner — seconded Sabella’s statement that indoor masking will be a subject of debate at the next board of health meeting.

“There’s no doubt we will be talking about mask-wearing,” he said Wednesday. “People bristle at the thought of a (mask) mandate, but it’s really the job the board of health has to do. I’m dreading the thought of it.”

The news about local case counts, the positivity rate and a possible indoor mask mandate or advisory in the near future contradicts statements made Tuesday morning by Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dave Ressler at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association Board meeting. He said at the time he hadn’t heard any conversations about a mask mandate and that the community was low-risk for transmission, though he added that if local case counts and positivity rates increase, a “snap back” to more restrictive policies could occur.

On Wednesday, Ressler pointed out that his comments were made in the morning before the new CDC guidelines were released, and reiterated that AVH remains in a “comfortable” position in terms of being able to care for patients, transfer them to other hospitals and that hospital staff remain mostly healthy.

Still, he acknowledged the whiplash changes that occurred between the ACRA meeting and later in the day.

“(Tuesday) is proving to be a pivotal day in the virus, both nationally and locally,” Ressler said Wednesday, adding that circumstances in Pitkin County and across the country changed between morning and afternoon. “It’s an example of how volatile the virus is and how it can change quickly.”

Poschman agreed.

“I attribute this (confusion) to the fog of war,” he said. “The Public Health Department is still in the thick of this.”

Editor’s note: This story has been update to reflect the total new cases between July 23 and Wednesday was 59 cases; 28 were residents as well as 31 non-county residents.


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