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Roaring Fork Valley public health agencies respond to end of federal COVID-19 emergency

As of Wednesday, half of the four ICU beds at Aspen Valley Hospital were filled, one with a patient who has COVID-19. Another patient with the virus was transferred to Denver over the weekend. “We are a small hospital, so an extra patient makes a big difference,” said Dave Ressler, the hospital’s CEO.
Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
A sign on a lamppost in downtown Aspen advises both locals and visitors to mask up during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

The federal COVID-19 emergency declaration ended on Thursday, so public health agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley have been modifying their responses to COVID-19.

Garfield County Public Health Specialist Carrie Godes said the department has been preparing for the end of the federal declaration for a while. The department has also taken some time to reflect on all of the community members lost to COVID, as well as some of the biggest takeaways from their response to the virus.

Godes said one of the most important public health lessons from the pandemic was the value of community partnerships, like with schools and emergency first responders. Godes said those partnerships enabled the department to become much more effective at communicating across a variety of platforms — and those skills will translate to other situations, too.

“We actually have built on some of those structures that we created, and are putting those into practice now as we’re kind of re-gearing for even just wildfire season, right?” she said. “So how can we work better as emergency responders to get information out to the public as quickly as possible?”

As for the continued response to the virus, free PCR testing, or lab testing, is still available for free through the end of July. Residents can get a test without an appointment from 8 a.m. to noon in Rifle on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the Health and Human Services building. Testing is also available on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Carbondale behind Town Hall from 8 a.m. to noon, and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Godes said the service was made possible by using federal COVID relief funds.

“When those go away, that’s when I think things will get more limited, and people may have to have insurance, we may have to think about programs for people who don’t have insurance, but for right now, we still have a supply of those,” she said.

Godes said the virus is now endemic, and Garfield County is still seeing between two and five COVID cases reported each day, ranging in severity and affected age range.

Vaccines are also still available for free by appointment, whether it’s your first shot or the latest booster. Godes said residents have been looking to the county for vaccines other than COVID-19, too.

“We’re having a lot of people coming in for all of their other vaccines, you know, their children’s vaccines,” she said. “We’ve seen a ton of people—I think this is also a part of the pandemic just winding down—just traveling again. So we do a lot of travel vaccines, so a lot of appointments for travelers.”

In Pitkin County, COVID vaccines, testing, and treatment are shifting away from Pitkin County Public Health. Officials say those options will be “exclusively available at medical providers, just like any other illness.” That means no more mass vaccine clinics or mass testing sites.

Vaccines, testing supplies, or treatments like paxlovid paid for by the federal government will continue to be free while supplies last, and those without insurance should reach out to the county’s human services department for options on COVID-19 treatment.

Pitkin County is also changing the data it has available on COVID-19. The county’s data dashboard is sunsetting at the end of June, but the department says it’s still monitoring the presence of the virus in the community.

“[The data] will align COVID-19 data to be similar to other respiratory diseases such as flu and RSV,” said Carly Senst, a Pitkin County epidemiologist and COVID-19 response lead.

At the end of June, Pitkin County will also no longer have staff specifically dedicated to COVID-19 response.

Eagle County will also no longer be providing free mass testing or vaccination clinics, though vaccines are still available by appointment.

Coloradans will no longer be able to get vaccinated on the state’s vaccine bus, but Eagle County is working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on a “revamped mobile vaccination program” set to launch later this summer.

“With immunity levels from vaccination or prior infection and the changes to the virus itself, we have seen a significant change in the disease severity since 2020,” said Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon. “It makes sense that the federal COVID-19 emergency declaration is coming to end, after all, the local and state declarations in Colorado have long since ended.”

To find a site distributing free take-home tests in Colorado, you can visit the state’s website. You can also figure out where to get vaccinated.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.