Year in Review: After two years of COVID-19 pandemic, here we go again
This past week and into the first week of 2022, The Aspen Times is examine the issues and news events that defined the Aspen-area community in 2021, while also turning the lens to next year and what to watch for. Our 10-part series shows how the pandemic’s tentacles have and will continue to dip into our lives: skiing, tourism, development, mental health, labor shortages, business closings, housing shortages, a real estate boom, entertainment, and on and on.
As the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic dawns, Pitkin County residents and the rest of the world could be forgiven for feeling a bit of déjà vu all over again.
That’s because the winter of 2021-22, so far, looks a lot like the grim situation we confronted almost exactly a year ago, when virus cases exploded to the highest peak yet as people headed inside to seek shelter from the cold, though significant differences exist.
The onset of the omicron variant just before Christmas this year exploded new COVID-19 case numbers to nearly the same levels seen at the end of last year, though the new variant appeared to provoke far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than a year ago.
Still, with hospitals across the state struggling with more than 90% occupancy of ICU beds thanks to the delta variant wave — mostly because of unvaccinated residents — that began this summer, the pandemic seemed far from over.
“Pitkin County continues to be hit hard with incidence rates, but so far hospitalizations remain low,” Jon Peacock, county manager, said Thursday in a news release announcing the temporary closure of most publicly accessed county facilities until at least Jan. 17. “Like many employers in the Roaring Fork Valley, Pitkin County is experiencing a significant number of employees who are out because they are isolating or have been exposed.”
On the same day, Gov. Jared Polis announced he was activating more than 200 members of the Colorado National Guard to support statewide testing sites and other COVID-19-related needs starting Jan. 1.
“With the high prevalence of omicron in Colorado, we need to ensure Coloradans can access testing without long waits, enabling them to isolate, notify contacts and keep from spreading the virus to their loved ones,” Polis said in a news release. “This additional support will help Coloradans access testing this holiday weekend by reducing wait times at major free community testing locations.”
Pitkin County, along with other resort counties like Eagle, Summit and San Juan, first began to see the omicron explosion a little less than a week before Christmas. Prior to that, local public health officials were feeling hopeful about the pandemic future because case numbers in the county had dwindled — a Thanksgiving bump in cases never materialized — thanks to a mandatory indoor mask policy passed Sept. 16 by the Pitkin County Board of Health.
On Dec. 19, Pitkin County logged 53 new COVID-19 cases among residents in the previous seven-day period. By Dec. 25, that number shot up to 279 new resident cases in seven days, with a peak of 310 on Dec. 28, according to Pitkin County’s online COVID-19 dashboard.
And that didn’t count out of county cases, which added another 50 to 75 new cases to the seven-day total.
The corresponding incidence rates also shot through the roof, hitting a high of 1,746 per 100,000 people on Dec. 28.
New case rates appeared to be dropping slightly as 2022 approached, with 212 new cases among residents and 59 new out of county cases documented by local public health officials as of Dec. 30. That prompted an incidence rate of 1,194 per 100,000, according to the dashboard.
While Aspen Valley Hospital was operating under a red “concerning” flag because many essential health care workers were out with COVID-19 or symptoms, the prevalence of vaccines and booster shots had not yet led to increasing numbers of COVID patients needing to be hospitalized. As of Thursday, the hospital was under “cautious” status when it came to daily visits by COVID patients and ability to transfer patients needing a higher level of care.
In addition, the latest studies of omicron indicated the variant didn’t cause cases of COVID as serious as delta, most likely because it doesn’t attack the lungs in the same detrimental way.
Most of the concern surrounding COVID in 2021, however, had to do with the delta variant, which began to seriously impact Pitkin County about mid-July. Delta essentially elbowed all the other variants out of the way during the rest of the summer and fall, with many other parts of the state feeling the impact of the unvaccinated on already-strained hospitals.
Another notable milestone in 2021 occurred in early November, when the Centers for Disease Control recommended the Pfizer vaccine be given to children ages 5 and older.