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Pitkin County Masks Up As COVID-19 Continues To Take Its Toll

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Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
As of Sept. 15, 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. “We are a small hospital, so an extra patient makes a big difference,” said hospital CEO Dave Ressler.

Starting Sept. 16, masks were once again required in all indoor public places in Pitkin County. The public health order includes restaurants, bars, retail stores, gyms, offices and other public places, but it does not apply to private homes.

The new mandate comes on the heels of the fifth recorded death from COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began. Eagle County has recorded 30 deaths since the pandemic began, and Garfield County has recorded 57 deaths.

“It really brings our attention back to why we are taking all of these measures, why we are getting vaccinated, why we are wearing masks,” said Jordana Sabella, the county’s public health director, at a news briefing Sept. 15.

The death of the community member had occurred at Aspen Valley Hospital over the previous weekend. According to local news reports, the patient was older and fully vaccinated.

Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dave Ressler said he is concerned about the level of spread as winter approaches, given that many who visit the county are still unvaccinated.

“I am concerned about, in particular, our most vulnerable, our elderly, our children that aren't old enough to be vaccinated,” Ressler said. “We are seeing breakthrough infections, even for those that are vaccinated.”

On Sept. 15, according to Aspen Journalism’s COVID-19 data tracker, Garfield County reported 27 new COVID-19 cases, Pitkin County added six cases and Eagle County reported two cases. Public health officials noted at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Pitkin County board of health that COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise in the Aspen area.

“You know it feels like because we had such a large peak in January, we’re in a better place right now, but really, we’re 9 times higher than where we were this time last year,” said Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s COVID-19 epidemiologist.

As of Sept. 16, two of the four ICU beds at AVH were filled, one with a patient who has COVID-19. Another patient with the virus was transferred to Denver over the previous weekend.

“We are a small hospital, so an extra patient makes a big difference,” Ressler said. “If we hadn’t transferred a patient out recently, that person would likely be in our ICU right now, so it can change by the hour.”

Hospitals across the state, including Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and hospitals in Grand Junction and Denver, are also seeing an increase in patients with COVID-19 and are stretched thin. Despite some breakthrough cases, Ressler and local public health officials agree that vaccines are working.

“I get really worried when we emphasize, you know, ‘Gosh, we had a death that was vaccinated.’ Yes, and the vaccines are still our most effective protection,” said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.

According to the county’s public health team, about 80% of deaths and hospitalizations across Colorado are among the unvaccinated, and the unvaccinated make up more than 73% of cases.

Peacock is hopeful that Pitkin County’s new mask mandate will complement the vaccines and help prevent future deaths.

“Masks aren’t punishment, they’re protection, let’s be clear about that,” Peacock said. “These mandates are to protect our local community.”

The new mask order applies to all individuals ages 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status. It will be in effect until Pitkin County’s COVID-19 risk drops into the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “moderate or low transmission” category for 21 consecutive days. The county is currently in the CDC’s “high transmission” category.

“Even though most of us in the community are vaccinated, we still can do more to protect ourselves,” Ressler said. “It's the next best thing we can do after getting vaccinated.”

As of Sept. 16, about 66% of the population in Pitkin County has been fully vaccinated, compared with an estimated 63% in Garfield County and nearly 70% in Eagle County.

Businesses that plan to implement a vaccine mandate for their staff can apply for an exemption with the county beginning Oct. 11. Businesses that already require proof of vaccination for their guests and employees can obtain an exemption by going to communityliaison@pitkincounty.com.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and Morning Edition anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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