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Mask mandates dropped on Roaring Fork Valley buses

Passengers board a RFTA bus headed downvalley from Aspen’s 8th Street bus stop after masks on public transportation became optional on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Passengers on buses in the Roaring Fork Valley no longer need to wear a mask, agencies decided Tuesday.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and Snowmass Village transportation department stopped enforcing the mask mandate for employees and passengers during the Tuesday morning commute.

“Since the start of the pandemic RFTA’s goal has been to maintain essential transportation options while ensuring the safety of our customers, our employees, and our communities,” RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said in a prepared statement. “We are thankful for our staff members and loyal RFTA riders who have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 as they continued to make a difference in our community as essential workers taking essential trips using RFTA.”

Masks are no longer required on Snowmass Village Shuttle buses and vehicles will be boarding to full capacity (including standing passengers) as of Tuesday, according to Snowmass Village Transportation Director David Peckler.

Also, Ride Glenwood buses no longer require masks for riders or drivers in alignment with federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and RFTA policy, a Glenwood official said Tuesday.

The abrupt reversal in mask requirements for public transportation came after a federal court in Florida ruled Monday that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to justify its decision and that the rulemaking procedures were flawed.

Federal agencies that oversee mass transit said after the ruling they would no longer enforce mask requirements on airplanes, trains, buses and shuttles. Aspen-Pitkin County Airport officials announced Tuesday they will no longer enforce facial coverings/masks in the terminal, effective immediately.

RFTA — the regional public bus operator — had required masks for the past two years.

“RFTA strongly encourages anyone who is not fully vaccinated, feeling ill, or who is immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable to use caution and consider facial coverings for their personal safety,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday morning. “RFTA recommends wearing upgraded masks such as N95s, KN95s, KF94s, etc., since they provide a higher level of protection. RFTA plans to continue making blue surgical masks available for the immediate future for boarding passengers.”

All of the agency said they would continue to work with local and state public health departments to ensure safety measures are followed, as needed.

RFTA will continue certain COVID-19 precautions such as using roof vents or windows to increase ventilation on buses, supplying hand sanitizer on all buses and “fogging” buses regularly to disinfect them. Barriers that separate drivers from passengers will remain in place.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Free COVID-19 testing to end at airport and in Snowmass Village

COVID-19 testing site in downtown Aspen has moved and is located on the Hopkins Avenue side of the old City Hall building. Previously during the pandemic, the downtown testing site was out of a trailer on the north side of the building.
David Krause / The Aspen Times

COVID-19 testing sites at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and in Snowmass Village will end free PCR testing for the public at the end of the month, according to a state health department news release.

However, both sites will remain open a few days a week offering PCR tests for a fee, though the schedule has not yet been worked out, Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said Thursday.

That means the only site in Pitkin County that will continue to offer free COVID-19 PCR testing is a walk-up window at the Armory Building — otherwise known as the former Aspen City Hall — on Hopkins Street, Sabella said. In addition, the Pitkin County Library will continue to offer free rapid antigen tests to the public.

The move to end free testing at the airport cellphone lot site and in Snowmass Village comes as part of the state’s efforts to transition COVID-19 testing to “traditional health care settings and federal programs,” according the state health department. The two sites are part of 40 statewide that will end free testing or close by April 30.

“Colorado’s network of more than 150 community testing sites across the state have provided free, reliable testing options to Coloradans throughout the pandemic,” said Dr. Emily Travanty, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Laboratory, in the release. “Now is an appropriate time to begin this gradual transition as we continue to see a plateau in case rates in Colorado, and decreased demand for community testing.”

The free PCR testing site at the Glenwood Springs Community Center also will close, according to the state.

Cases of omicron subvariant detected in Pitkin County

The rapidly spreading BA.2 omicron subvariant was detected in both people and wastewater last month in Pitkin County, an official said Thursday.

The subvariant, which is more transmissible than omicron, was declared the dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States earlier this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though federal health officials have said they don’t expect a major U.S. surge in cases.

“It’s hard to know if it’s the dominant strain in Pitkin County (yet),” said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist. “Right now, it appears from the data that it’s about half and half (with the original omicron strain).”

Four people who tested positive for COVID-19 between March 3 and March 10 in Pitkin County later were found to be infected with the BA.2 strain when the samples were analyzed by the Colorado state public health department lab, Vance said.

A wastewater sample taken from the Aspen area March 17 also tested positive for BA.2. However, a subsequent wastewater sample taken March 24 contained such low levels of COVID-19, the lab was unable to assess if BA.2 was present, Vance said.

On Tuesday, the CDC estimated that nearly 55% of new U.S. COVID-19 cases the week before were positive for BA.2, with the main concentration coming in the Northeast. While the subvariant — which is distinguished by eight different mutations from omicron — is more contagious, it hasn’t been found to cause more serious cases of the disease.

Pitkin County averaged about two-and-a-half new COVID-19 cases a day for the seven-day period that ended Monday, according to Vance and the county’s online COVID-19 dashboard. That translated into an incidence rate of between about 90 and 95 per 100,000 people, he said.

“I know two-and-a-half doesn’t sound like a lot,” Vance said. “But we still have the third-highest (incidence) level in the state. We still have significant levels of the virus in the community.”

That third-highest rate, however, may be somewhat misleading in that Pitkin County also has one of the highest testing rates in the state.

“If testing was equal among all counties, we probably wouldn’t fall at the top,” he said.

Aspen Valley Hospital received two COVID-19 patients in need of hospitalization in the past two weeks, one on March 15 and one on March 24, Vance said. He did not yet know if either patient had the BA.2 subvariant.

As of Thursday, AVH had no COVID-19 patients, said Jennifer Slaughter, hospital spokeswoman.

The CDC said Tuesday that immunocompromised people and residents over the age of 50 who received a booster at least four months ago were eligible for another booster shot of the mRNA vaccines. Vance said Thursday that appointments remain available in the county for those boosters, and that Pitkin County Public Health encourages those in the affected groups to get the second booster shot.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Q&A: Jill Hunsaker Ryan on leading Colorado’s COVID-19 response, fighting disinformation and the road ahead

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, pulls down her face covering to respond to questions during a news conference on the state's efforts against the coronavirus Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP

Jill Hunsaker Ryan worked 60 straight days at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, often logging 15 hours straight in front of her computer while leading the state’s response to the crisis. Her husband would bring her meals at her computer at their home in Edwards as she worked around the clock, jumping from one virtual meeting to the next.

“My staff and I, we would jump on our computers somewhere around 6:30, and we’d be in meetings up until the evening,” said Hunsaker Ryan, the former Eagle County commissioner who was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis in January 2019 as the executive director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Hunsaker Ryan, quick to defer credit, said some of her team members continued to grind without a day off even longer than her in the first few months of the pandemic.

“I mean, we worked weekends for, I don’t know, probably six months,” she said. “They were definitely like 15-hour days for a really long time.”

All that work has led to Colorado being “in a really good place,” Hunsaker Ryan said.

To that point, nearly 80% of Coloradans have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the state is 11th in the country for residents with a third dose. Colorado also has the 10th-lowest death rate in the United States and, throughout the pandemic, never exceeded the cumulative death rate of the U.S. average.

At the end of February, Gov. Polis told Coloradans in a press conference, with Hunsaker Ryan at his side, that it’s “time to turn the page and start a new chapter,” and that those who are fully vaccinated “can freely live without undue fear.”

In a recent sitdown with the Vail Daily, Hunsaker Ryan reiterated that message, saying Colorado remains in a good spot after the surge driven by the omicron variant. She then reiterated that if a more severe variant emerges that again strains the state’s health care infrastructure, her office is always prepared to ramp systems back up.

Next month, Hunsaker Ryan will be honored by Polis with the 2022 Citizenship Award, which recognizes individuals who inspire excellence and public service. It represents one of the highest honors in the state.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Vail Daily: It’s been more than two years now. What emotions do you have? What’s the feeling you get when you think about it?

Jill Hunsaker Ryan: A big sigh of relief and just such a sense of pride in the state of Colorado team that has responded to this. It includes the state health department. It includes the Department of Public Safety, the governor’s office. We’ve had the same response team from the beginning. People have stayed with us, and Colorado’s just in a really good place right now.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, right, confers with Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as they head to a news conference about the steady increase in cases of the new coronavirus in the state Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Denver.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

VD: When you were in grad school at the University of Northern Colorado, getting your masters of public health, you obviously trained for scenarios like this. Same when you were the Eagle County public health director. Describe all that training versus the real thing?

JHR: So in the late ’90s, Laurie Garrett came out with this book called “The Coming Plague.” She was a journalist, and everyone in public health read it and talked about the public health system being under-prepared and us being overdue for a pandemic.

And then, post-9/11 and the anthrax event that happened a month later, the public health system nationally was brought into this federal emergency management system. We were given a lot of funding to do training and pandemic planning. That’s when I was at Eagle County. And the most likely scenario, I think everyone thought, was a pandemic flu. And, of course, that came to fruition in 2009. And so we had thought a lot about pandemics and what they could look like. And we worked on our mass vaccination clinics and did a lot of fit testing around N95 masks.

But this virus is so complex, it is so novel, and it behaves so much differently than a flu. For one thing, it’s more severe. It’s more contagious. And the asymptomatic nature of it, which wasn’t known really for the first couple of months in general, like around the world, it just made it very challenging to contain the magnitude of it. The Colorado School of Public Health has some really great charts that just shows on our highest day of testing in Colorado, processing 87,000 tests, there were likely three to four times the number of people infected.

In fact, they said in early January, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 15 Coloradans were infected at that point. So vaccines offer a pathway back to a more normal way of life. And at the beginning of this, you asked me how I was feeling and I said relief because I think at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t know if there would be a vaccine for this. We didn’t know how long it would take to develop. And vaccines have really replaced the need for the social distancing orders and the kids having to do online learning and really the economic devastation to families and communities and businesses. So I’m very hopeful at this point. I’m very, very hopeful.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, center, and Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Jill Hunsaker Ryan, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on the coronavirus response, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

VD: Colorado has entered a new phase in its response. All of this infrastructure we built up in these two years, now we’re sort of winding some of that down. Is this the right time to do that? Especially with what’s going on with the BA.2 variant?

JHR: So, the level of disease transmission and the number of hospitalizations are as low as they have been since the summer of 2020. And part of that is because omicron was so contagious. It kind of left this natural layer of immunity, particularly for people that weren’t vaccinated. And we know immunity wanes, and we know natural immunity wanes faster. So how long will it provide this layer of protection? We’re not sure. But certainly, as we head toward warmer weather, people go outside, and then when kids get out of school, it’s why we tend to see low transmission levels in the summer.

Colorado has really built up its surveillance systems. We do wastewater treatment surveillance. We do genome sequencing in our lab. So we can tell when new variants have entered the state. We can tell when transmission is starting to increase even before the laboratory testing is showing it. You mentioned a new variant, BA.2, and it looks like that while it’s transmissible as the original omicron, it still has about the same severity, it’s more mild. And so while some people will get really sick from it. The vast majority won’t need to be hospitalized from it.

So we think that this is the time to try and head toward what we call endemicity, which is pushing a lot of these functions that have been provided at the highest levels by the state in terms of testing and vaccination. We had mobile buses that did those two things, plus administered therapeutics. Our lab was processing tests around the clock. We want to push those back into the health care system, so people can go to their medical homes for this type of treatment.

But certainly we recognize, if there’s a winter wave next year, if there is a more severe variant that out-competes omicron for contagiousness, we might need to ramp these systems back up, certainly. But this transition needs to happen, so we’re not in this emergency response. It’s a very costly emergency response. It’s mostly federally funded right now. And all indicators are that this is the right time to do some of that.

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, makes a point during a news conference Wednesday, July 7, 2021, to introduce the fifth and final $1-million winner in the state's vaccine lottery at the governor's mansion in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP

VD: It has been said that epidemiology is a science of possibilities and persuasion, not of certainties and hard proof. And that being approximately right most of the time is better than being precisely right occasionally. I’m sure you have hindsight looking back on these two years and thinking we could have done some things differently. But in comparison to other states, we’ve done very well. Why is that?

JHR: We’ve had a very data-driven response. It’s been very methodical, intentional. We looked at daily indicators along with our partners at public safety and the governor’s office. And the combination of metrics, I think really helped us try to stay one step ahead of the virus. To your point, some of the measurements weren’t perfect because, for example, the tests weren’t picking up asymptomatic cases of people that didn’t feel ill enough to seek a test. But the Colorado School of Public Health was using our hospital data to model what true infection probably looked like. And so with all of the indicators that we had at any given time, we had a pretty good picture of what was going on. We used mobility data. We were able to track hospitalizations around the state. We could tell when hospital beds were starting to fill up. And then we were able to transfer patients around the state to sort of rebalance the patient load on our hospital system.

We looked at different populations. We looked at the county level, the regional level. We looked at racial and ethnic indicators for things like hospitalizations, ability to get a test, level of vaccination. And so we are able to tailor our response to certain demographics.

VD: You bring up demographics. The Colorado Sun recently reported that Colorado has one of the lowest vaccination rates among its Latino population. As a state, we’ve got a high vaccination rate, but what are some initiatives going forward to deal with the pockets out there where the numbers are low or lower than you’d hope?

JHR: The data that we use is more robust and nuanced than what is reported to the CDC. We’ve actually done some modeling to better understand our true level of vaccinations in the Latino population. And part of that is people may not want to tell you their ethnicity when they get a vaccine. Particularly, if you think about just the climate for people who may be undocumented and in the country, or just kind of Latinos in general, it’s an undercount. So the numbers that we have are actually higher than the CDC’s. But to your point, there’s still a large disparity there. So we actually set up a new health equity branch within our disease control division, and they focus on health disparities.

We have a lot of different strategies around this. We’ve used community members as spokespeople. We’ve had 2,197 equity pop-up clinics, and that’s where we have a clinic in a church parking lot in partnership with a pastor, for example. We offer our information in English and in Spanish. We have had a very large, very robust information campaign around vaccinations. It’s something I’ve never seen before in all my years in public health. And to form that campaign, we did a bunch of research to understand how, for example, communities of color, who they want to receive their information from. Like, who’s the most trusted messenger, what messages resonate, what methods?

We have contractors that are going out to immigrant communities and coordinating vaccine clinics there. We have a whole group called Vaccine Champions for Health, which are some of these community leaders, and they’ve been great at doing social media and commercials. So we’ve tried to get the word out about vaccines and that they’re safe and effective. And then we’ve tried to bring vaccines to people where they are and make them really convenient and have trusted messengers and present it in people’s native languages.

VD: How stifled has that message been, or how challenging has it been to get it out there with the state of media in this country and in our state? How hard is it to convince people to do something they don’t want to do?

JHR: It’s very hard. The disinformation campaign around vaccines has been persistent and convincing. So it’s very hard when we’re up against that. And that is absolutely a real dynamic. And it’s one reason that we’ve done so much research, focus groups and interviews, and tried to understand what people’s fears are around the vaccine so we can try and counter that in our media campaigns.

But the other thing, we have had a disinformation strategy where we’ve been able to monitor some of the disinformation messages, and so then we can help counter those messages and we can see what populations are going to, where are they happening. But it’s been been difficult.

VD: Those disinformation campaigns put you under the spotlight. You’re someone who’s setting these policies or working with the governor’s office to do these things. Have you received any threats from people who obviously see you as the person that’s ruining their lives in some way or another?

JHR: Particularly at the beginning of the campaign, I’ve had death threats. Some of my staff have had death threats. Throughout, I think the public health field has kind of been painted as the villain. And it’s really too bad, because this is a field that has just worked so hard. It’s a field of very passionate, mission-driven people who are going to work long hours to try to protect the public.

But I feel like we’ve had a really balanced response because it’s been data-driven. We’ve recognized that when we have social distancing orders in place, for example, that those do have negative consequences. So we’ve really tried to balance disease suppression with the negative consequences you can get from some of the suppression strategies. We’ve always held protecting the hospital system as our North Star. So that’s been our ultimate goal. And it’s really been in that sense that we have had to implement some of these strategies.

Dr. Christy Murphy, a veterinarian at Buffalo Mountain Animal Hospital, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Elsa Aguirre during a drive-thru clinic at the Summit Stage bus depot in Frisco on Friday, March 19, 2021.
Jason Connolly/Jason Connolly Photography

But again, with vaccines, and it’s why we have had mass vaccination clinics around the state, why we’ve had mobile buses going around the state trying to vaccinate people. This really is the strategy to us not having to go back to a place where we have to use restrictions to prevent transmission, to protect the hospital systems.

VD: What is the future of this? You mentioned the word endemicity, which means that we’re going to have to live with this. It’s going to be here. But people want to know what’s ahead. To use a quote from the governor, he said, “We never declared victory over this, but we have reached a point where we can go back to trying to living our lives like we lived before the pandemic.”

JHR: That’s absolutely true, especially if you’re vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted. And we want people to get their booster shots because vaccination immunity can wane. People should live their lives and know that their state is prepared for surges or new variants, but I think that this is going to be here to stay. And the goal of endemicity is really that there’s enough immunity that our hospital systems are protected without the state having to do an emergency response. And anybody who needs a hospital bed from an injury, or needs surgery, or the birth of a baby, or COVID-19, can get a hospital bed. And that they’re staffed and that they have the level of care that we have all come to expect. So when there is a certain level of immunity and we’re just able to ride out these waves without the surging some of these functions, that’s how we’ll know we are there. But we’re ready to surge if we need to.

European trends indicate an omicron variant ‘bump’ may be coming

A COVID-19 omicron variant thought to be causing case increases in the U.K. and Europe was detected in Aspen wastewater last month, though more recent samples have been free of it, an official said Wednesday.

And while the number of new COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County remains relatively low, the numbers reported Wednesday on the county’s online dashboard were not accurate because of a reporting glitch by the state public health department that was in the process of being fixed, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.

“We saw a steep decline but a lot of that we attribute to cases not being reported to us,” Vance said. “But we’re in a much different place (now) than we were a couple months ago.”

Researchers and analysts currently are tracking four different subvariants of omicron. One of those is known as BA.2, which is “pretty different genetically” from BA.1, which caused the surge in COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County, Colorado and across the country in January, he said.

Early research into BA.2 indicates that it causes a milder case of COVID-19 similar to the first omicron cases. However, it may be even more transmissible than BA.1, which was already much more contagious than any other version of the virus previously seen. One study showed it to be 30% more transmissible, which would make it quite a bit more contagious, Vance said.

The U.K. is currently seeing a greater preponderance of BA.2 over BA.1, and is experiencing an increase in cases. Vance said the same situation appears to be occurring in other European countries like France, Italy and Germany.

“The belief is that it’s really taking over there,” he said. “Anytime we have a more contagious variant, it is concerning and something we’re trying to watch very closely.”

It remains unclear whether those who contracted the original omicron variant — BA.1 — are susceptible to reinfection by BA.2. The U.K. and Europe experienced the omicron peak earlier than the U.S. and use some of the different vaccines available, so it’s hard to tell yet whether the uptick in cases is the result of reinfection, waning vaccine protection or other factors, he said.

“The data is not really there yet,” Vance said. “There’s not a lot of research now (the new increase in cases) is caused by reinfection or it’s catching people who didn’t get BA.1.”

Pitkin County regularly sends wastewater samples to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lab for analysis, and a sample sent Feb. 7 contained BA.2, he said. However, the latest sample from March 10 did not find any of that omicron variant in the wastewater.

Pitkin County public health officials also send the state lab samples from each new positive COVID-19 PCR test in the county. None of those local samples have, so far, come up positive for BA.2, Vance said.

“It tells us that we had low enough levels or it was not present at all in the latest (wastewater sample),” he said. “We’re not seeing evidence of BA.2 in the community. Obviously, as the entire pandemic has gone, that could change very quickly.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has generally been about two weeks behind infection trends in the U.K. and Europe, Vance said.

As to whether BA.2 could cause another wave of cases in Pitkin County and the U.S., Vance said solid information is simply not yet available. But because the initial omicron surge infected so many the first time around, coupled with the effectiveness of vaccines, means public health officials don’t think another omicron wave will be as intense.

“From the analysis I’ve seen … there is an expectation of another bump (in cases), but that it won’t rise to the levels reached in January,” he said.

Pitkin County’s online dashboard indicates that just six new COVID-19 cases were detected in the past seven days, with an incidence rate of 35 per 100,000. In addition, an email that went out from the county Tuesday informed residents that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the community level of COVID-19 is “low.”

That is most likely not correct, Vance said Wednesday.

The CDC receives the information it reports from CDPHE, which has been having a coding problem that did not properly label COVID-19 cases from Pitkin County. The state of Colorado added more Pitkin County cases to the totals Wednesday, bringing the county’s incidence rate to 73 per 100,000 people. Several days worth of additional cases since March 1, however, were still missing as of Wednesday, he said.

The local incidence rate is now probably around 100 per 100,000 people, Vance said. And that is still a low rate of local infection.

Public health officials are not receiving outbreak reports from local businesses, and Aspen Valley Hospital has not admitted a COVID-19 patient in the past 28 days, he said.

“We have definitely decreased over the last two months,” Vance said.

Hospital CEO Dave Ressler confirmed Wednesday that the facility remains “comfortable” on all levels, including COVID-19 admissions, staff out with virus-like symptoms and the hospital’s ability to transfer the most ill patients to other facilities.

“(We) are seeing some cases but much less,” Ressler said in a text message to the Times. “(That) reflects community low incidence (rates).”

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Pitco Board of Health gets look at path forward with COVID-19

The Pitkin County Board of Health got a look Thursday at the path forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, two years and a couple of days after the virus rolled into town and stuck around for the long haul.

The county public health department and state and federal public health officials are shifting to approach the virus as an endemic illness like the flu rather than an all-encompassing pandemic, according to Public Health Director Jordana Sabella.

“This is really about protecting hospital capacity, and normalizing COVID treatments back into the traditional health care setting,” Sabella said during the board’s monthly meeting.

A few updates to staffing, data tracking and risk monitoring reflect that shift.

Come April 1, the county’s virus response team will have six members primarily focused on COVID-19: a response manager and epidemiologist, a school and child health specialist, a data management specialist, a case surveillance specialist focused on vulnerable populations, a vaccine and testing analyst and a community engagement and communications representative, according to epidemiologist Josh Vance.

The team’s work now focuses on investigating “priority” cases rather than every single case of the virus; integrating case tracking into “more of a routine communicable disease approach;” planning for variants and surges and addressing other COVID-related health factors like mental health and long-haul COVID, Vance said.

The public health director and environmental health manager will still provide support to that response, Vance said.

In 2021, Pitkin County Public Health had 24 total employees, and 10 of them had a COVID-specific position, Sabella said in the meeting.

But in the thick of the pandemic, the entire department took an “all hands on approach” to virus response, Vance said.

Now, the department will have 20 employees, including the six focused on COVID-19, Sabella said. The department has already started to transition other staff back to their regular roles and “non-COVID-specific priorities,” Vance said.

The county also plans to roll out a new data overview early next week that will present all the relevant stats on one dashboard instead of five, according to data analyst John Anderson.

Familiar metrics on case counts, vaccinations and hospital capacity will still be available, along with a new metric on reinfection rates, according to Anderson.

Case data will now come from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment rather than from Pitkin County Public Health.

Pitkin County also will look to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s new matrix to determine the low, medium or high impact of COVID on communities. The matrix is based on the number of new COVID cases in Pitkin County and on hospital data from a wider-reaching “Health Service Area” that includes several counties.

As of Thursday afternoon, Pitkin County had a positivity rate of 6.6% and had logged six COVID-19 cases in the last seven days, according to the county’s data dashboard.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Pandemic to endemic: Pitkin County’s COVID rates dropping as ‘new normal’ sets in

With the local COVID-19 incidence rate dropping to levels not seen since last summer, Pitkin County’s public health director is beginning to breathe easier.

“I’m in a mood where I think our whole team can take a deep breath and look at the other pieces of the job we get to do,” Jordana Sabella said Friday. “As we’re making the transition, I really want to thank the community for all they have done to make it through the last two years with one of the lowest death rates in the country.”

A total of six Pitkin County residents have died from COVID-19 out of a total of 5,647 cases since March 1, 2020, according to the county’s online dashboard.

The county has logged just 17 new case of the virus among residents in the past week, with zero out-of-county cases during the same period. That’s the lowest number since early December. In addition, the incidence rate dropped below 100 to 96 per 100,000 people for the first time since mid-July, according to the dashboard.

In words echoed by Gov. Jared Polis during a news conference Friday, Sabella said the conversation around COVID-19 is beginning to move toward how to live with the virus “and getting back to what the new normal looks like.”

That includes moving the emergency response to the virus — like mass testing sites and mass vaccination clinics — into the existing health care system and treating it like other communicable diseases tracked by public health, she said.

“It just becomes part of the normal work we do,” Sabella said. “Just like flu response (when) some years it’s more virulent than others and needs a different response.”

If another COVID-19 variant surfaces, public health officials know how to mitigate it and what processes need to be set up depending on its severity. The key to the equation is protecting hospital capacity, which is currently comfortable at Aspen Valley Hospital, she said.

AVH had no COVID-19 patients admitted as of Friday, the hospital’s staff was generally healthy and the facility’s ability to transfer the sickest patients to other hospitals was normal, said hospital CEO Dave Ressler.

Still, Sabella said she doesn’t think Pitkin County is quite back to normal.

“We’re working back towards that but we’re not there yet,” she said.

The upcoming spring break crowds could bump up local numbers as was the case last year, though state public health officials now estimate that 90% of Colorado residents are immune to omicron. That could tamp down the numbers this year, though Sabella said it’s too early to tell and that local public health officials will continue to monitor the data.

“At this point we’re just waiting to see,” she said.

On Friday, Polis outlined a strategy focusing on hospital readiness standards, surge planning and normalizing care for COVID-19 patients while investing in stabilizing the state’s health care workforce and “engaging the federal government in national endemic response.”

“As the pandemic phase of this response recedes into a more endemic response, the state will continue to operate in a state of readiness, keeping emergency response and public health systems prepared to respond and surge when needed,” according to a news release from Polis’ office Friday.

Mask mandate, COVID ‘emergency’ ends in Aspen, Pitkin County

Pitkin County’s five-month-old indoor mask mandate expired as the day began Tuesday, though masks are still required on public transportation for at least another month.

The Pitkin County Board of Health voted earlier this month in a special meeting to end the indoor mask rule for public spaces and in schools at midnight Tuesday after the busy Presidents Day Weekend. The mandate was originally passed Sept. 16, while masks in schools have been required since August.

Both the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners were also scheduled later Tuesday to rescind nearly 2-year-old local emergency disaster declarations passed as the COVID-19 pandemic first descended. The Aspen City Council passed the emergency declaration March 13, 2020, while the county board adopted a similar resolution March 17, 2020.

“It’s been a crazy 712 days and nights since the initial COVID-19 emergency declaration in Aspen,” Aspen City Manager Sara Ott wrote in a memo to councilmembers. “The final Pitkin County public health order impacting the Aspen community expires on Feb. 22, 2022. With this expiration, the City Manager no longer needs to exercise emergency authorities to manage the presence of disease in the community and/or city facilities.”

“Pitkin County residents have achieved a very high rate of vaccination against COVID-19, resulting in decreased incidence rates and hospitalizations due to COVID19 …” according to a proposed draft of the county board’s resolution.

Masks still will be required on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses and other forms of public transportation like airplanes until at least March 18 under federal regulations.

Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Monday he expects conflicts to arise in relation to the continuing transportation rule. Officers were called Thursday to Rubey Park to help RFTA security deal with passengers who refused to wear masks and became unruly, he said. The passengers were kicked off the bus.

“I just think it’s going to be a flash point, perhaps,” Linn said.

As of Friday, the seven-day Pitkin County incidence rate was 275 per 100,000 people, with 48 new cases of COVID-19 among residents in the preceding week and one out-of-county case, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboards.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Lifted mask mandate won’t excuse Aspen hospital, airport, buses

Although the indoor mask mandate will end on Feb. 22, some businesses will continue enforcing the mandate. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Tuesday can’t come soon enough for those over and done with Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate, but a few places will still require people to wear face-coverings for admission.

Among them are Aspen’s airport and hospital and the local public buses, all of which will continue to acknowledge state and federal guidelines regarding mask-wearing.

“Although the mask mandate may be lifted for Pitkin County, for the hospital itself, which still has to follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the state guidelines, that mask mandate will not be lifted,” said Elaine Gerson, AVH’s chief operating officer, at the hospital’s monthly board meeting held Monday. “Masks will continue to be required if you are coming to the hospital for any services whatsoever.”

Varying mask mandates and guidelines for health care providers and facilities have come from both state and federal agencies, and those rules supersede orders at the local level.

In its Feb. 2 interim COVID-19 guidelines for health care personnel, the CDC said that “source control and physical distancing (when physical distancing is feasible and will not interfere with provision of care) are recommended for everyone in a health care setting.“

Source control is a reference to respirators, face masks and cloth masks.

The Colorado Board of Health’s rule requiring 100% vaccination rates for licensed health care facilities by Oct. 31, which has been in effect since Aug. 30, also remains in force.

As well, AVH will continue to adhere to the vaccination mandate by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is the federal agency that establishes health and safety regulations for health care providers and suppliers that are Medicare- and Medicaid-certified.

“We are governed by federal rules and regulations because we accept Medicare as a payer source,” Gerson said.

In November, CMS posted its IFC, which stands for Interim Final Rule with Comment Period, regarding vaccinations for health care settings.

“We believe that the COVID-19 vaccine requirements in this IFC will result in nearly all health care workers being vaccinated, thereby benefiting all individuals in health care settings,” said the IFC. “This will greatly contribute to a reduction in the spread of and resulting morbidity and mortality from the disease, positive steps towards health equity, and an improvement in the numbers of health care staff who are healthy and able to perform their professional responsibilities.”

Both the CMS’s mandate as well as one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mandate, which had required vaccination and COVID-19 tests for employers with at least 100 workers, met legal challenges that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed in January. The high court upheld the CMS mandate through a 5-4 decision, but ruled 6-3 that OSHA exceeded its authority and blocked its vaccination and testing requirements.

AVH also will continue to conduct COVID-19 screenings (temperature check and COVID symptom questions) for people who enter the facility.

“We don’t expect the screening guidelines will end anytime soon,” Gerson said.

People at least 2 years of age still are required by federal law to wear masks on public transportation — including planes, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, trains and other modes to get around. Transportation hubs also require masks under orders adopted by the Transportation Security Administration.

“Face coverings are mandatory in the Aspen Airport per TSA Executive Order,” according to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s website.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County board votes to end mask mandate starting Feb. 22

Local Tina Babic puts on her mask under her ski helmet in the Silver Queen Gondola plaza in downtown Aspen on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The Pitkin County Board of Health voted to drop the indoor mask mandates in businesses and schools starting on Feb. 22. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate for both children in schools and adults will end the day after Presidents Day Weekend.

Members of the county’s Board of Health voted unanimously Thursday to drop all local public health orders at 12 a.m. Feb. 22, including the indoor mask mandate.

Based on conversations with school staff, Pitkin County Public Health staff initially recommended that children in schools keep their masks on until March 3. But that idea was shot down Thursday after pleas from parents and the Aspen School District superintendent to treat children like adults and simultaneously drop the mandate for both.

“We need to celebrate as a county and I’m hoping we can all remove our masks at the same time,” said Dr. Christa Gieszl, vice-chair of the Board of Health and also a member of the Aspen Board of Education. “This is cause for celebration.”

Board of Health Chairman Greg Poschman, also a county commissioner, later echoed that sentiment, though he tempered it with hard-won knowledge gained during two years of pandemic ups and downs.

“We should breathe a breath of fresh air,” he said. “But keep that mask handy, … because we can’t predict what’s next.”

Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Madsen, also a health board member, supported ending the indoor mask mandate immediately, and asked why that couldn’t happen.

Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said immediate dropping of the mandate would hamper schools because they wouldn’t have guidance as to how to proceed. The lack of guidance also would kick in quarantine rules that largely have been avoided through the use of masks, she said.

The state public health department is scheduled to release new school guidance Friday, which is likely to look like a model Eagle County now uses that emphasizes routine disease control measures used for other infectious diseases and emphasizes outbreak control strategies, Sabella said.

In fact, Eagle County’s ending of its indoor mask mandate in mid-January for adults and children has been helpful for Pitkin County moving forward, Sabella said.

“How they’re managing the same high rate of omicron gives us confidence moving in that direction,” she said.

Regardless of Friday’s guidance, however, students at Aspen School District’s three schools will not be required to wear masks indoors come Feb. 22, just like adults in the county, Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh said after Thursday’s health board meeting.

“We’re still recommending wearing masks,” he said. “But if they don’t want to (on Feb. 22), they don’t have to.”

The district is sending out letters asking that staff reach out to human resources and parents communicate with principals about any special needs regarding the end of the indoor mask mandate, Baugh said.

He urged tolerance for those who choose to continue to wear facemasks.

“If someone is wearing a mask, you don’t know why they’re wearing a mask,” Baugh said. “If someone isn’t wearing a mask, you don’t know why they’re not wearing a mask. Let’s be kind.”

Dr. Kim Levin, Pitkin County chief medical officer and a local emergency room physician, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s critical to respect other people,” she said. “You never know a person’s story.”

Pitkin County’s Board of Health instituted a mandatory facemask rule in August for kids in school. The board extended the mandate to everyone over the age of 2 in indoor public settings a month later, and that’s where the in-county situation has remained since.

Health board members had been meeting every month during the pandemic, though they decided to back off that schedule at their January meeting and not meet again until March. That decision didn’t sit well with many local parents, who watched friends dine out, sip cocktails and socialize while their children — especially young children — suffered with masks for hours on end at school and were denied social interactions with their peers.

After recent pleas to local elected officials during regular weekly meetings, the Board of Health called a special meeting for Thursday to address the mask issue as omicron wanes and surrounding communities ditch mask mandates.

Sabella said she met before Thursday’s meeting with representatives from the school district, and the common consensus was that the school would need more time to implement the expected guidance and go maskless. That was the reason behind advocating the March 3 date, she said.


Public comment submitted before Thursday’s meeting showed a disproportional number of local residents wanted to end the indoor mask mandate for both adults and children. Of the 216 comments, 44% wanted to discontinue the mask requirement for children — compared with 12% who wanted to keep it — and 24% wanted to end the requirement for all, with just 6% urging a continued mask mandate, according to statistics presented at the meeting.

Of the 14 people who commented publicly during Thursday’s meeting, just one advocated keeping masks in schools. The rest, who were all parents, cited declining mental health among their children, the unfairness issue compared to adult rules and opinions and studies disputing the efficacy of masks in controlling transmission of COVID-19.

“Children are tortured wearing masks,” said Anna Mari. “Let the children have their freedom back.”

Jennifer Hall said masks cause children to suffer hypoxia and pass out in school.

“I’m one of those people who do not believe masks are effective,” she said, citing 47 studies that came to that conclusion.

Others said they weren’t against masks, but preferred it to be a question of personal or parental choice.

Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist, told board members the omicron wave here began around Nov. 19, crested Jan. 8, and disproportionately affected children. Pediatric COVID-19 cases remained higher Thursday in Pitkin County than adult cases — with the children’s incidence rate at 738 per 100,000 and the adult incidence rate at 315, he said.

However, local public health officials believe they only caught about half of the local omicron cases. That means the actual incidence rate was 1,741 per 100,000 for children and 845 for adults, Vance said.

Vance and his colleagues believe about 42% of children and 39% of adults in Pitkin County have been infected with the omicron variant.

Sabella said the state public health department has indicated that by the end of February, 65% of the population may be infected with omicron.

Epidemiologically, the current question is whether a genetically different “subvariant” of omicron — known in public health circles as “BA.2” — that is expected to become the predominant strain in the next 2-3 weeks can reinfect previous omicron patients, Vance said. The country of Denmark has seen some reinfection, though he said some current modeling indicates low rates of omicron reinfection, he said.

Finally, public health officials expect that COVID-19 vaccines will be approved for children ages 6 months to 4 years by the end of February, Sabella said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com