All three counties in the Roaring Fork Valley are experiencing their highest rates of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March. Public health officials and hospitals are concerned about a grim winter ahead, with holiday gatherings and travel threatening to worsen already-unprecedented levels of the virus.
In Garfield County, more than 10% of tests came back positive. The international standard for a “too high” positivity rate is 5%. The county’s two-week average for new cases reached 18.3, surpassing the previous peak set in late July. Carrie Godes, Garfield County Public Health specialist, called the latest numbers “very concerning.”
“It's been a pretty steep increase, very quickly,” she said.
More than half of all cases in Garfield County are classified as “community spread” – meaning that new infections cannot be traced to a specific source. Godes said the sudden surge in new cases will strain the county’s ability to contact trace and follow up with people who were in touch with those who tested positive.
Godes added that a lot of spread is happening when people have their guard down.
“The main factors that are contributing to the increases in cases are spread in people's homes, in people's personal spaces,” she said. “It's people that you're most comfortable with. It's your coworkers that you see every day. In these closer spaces, you know them well, you make these assumptions that ‘neither of us are sick. We don't have COVID.’”
In Eagle County, the 7-day average for new cases reached 25, surpassing the previous peak set in mid-March. The county was contacted by the state and “has been notified to consider mitigation and containment measures immediately.”
Informal gatherings, where people met with others outside of their household, are likely to blame, according to Birch Barron, Eagle County director of emergency management. Meetups in restaurants, at dinner parties, at birthdays and public events “predictably” led to the increase in new cases and hospitalizations, he said.
“That's not something that we can just enforce our way out of,” Barron said. “So if we don't see a real change in people taking personal responsibility, then we're left with very few tools other than to just circle the wagons and support our healthcare providers and our hospitals, and try to minimize the casualties in any way we can.”
Pitkin County has also seen an unprecedented spike in new cases among residents, setting a new peak for two-week average, surpassing the previous high from July. Tests at Aspen Valley Hospital came back 9% positive, a data point that also includes non-residents.
Climbing virus rates across Colorado threaten to strain hospitals in every part of the state, threatening to create a “log jam” for rural hospitals that want to transfer critical patients to a higher level of care at larger and better-equipped hospitals.
Even in the face of that, Dave Ressler, Aspen Valley Hospital CEO, says he understands why businesses have stayed open in the resort community.
“If we had an economy that had alternative sources of putting food on the plates of so many people in our community, I'd say, ‘Absolutely, shut it down. Don't let anybody come here and bring the virus here,’” Ressler said. “But the fact of matter is, we don't have alternative sources of income for our community. Our economy is dependent upon tourism and many of our jobs and incomes are dependent on that tourism. It becomes a matter of balance. If you shut down the economy, people are going to suffer differently.”
In Eagle County, Barron says there may be a point where that balance itself becomes untenable.
“If we can't turn this virus around, those business models will be unsustainable,” he said. “Not just from a public health restriction standpoint, but their ability to run their businesses in a way that keeps visitors healthy and safe and coming to our community. We all know that so many of our jobs and so much of our workforce, whether it's in the hospitality sector, construction or restaurants. So many of the things that we offer as a community are dependent on those visitors during the winter season.”