Throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, rates of new COVID-19 cases continue to rise. New cases transmitted over Thanksgiving are just beginning to trickle into county data, exacerbating virus rates that were already higher than any other point in the pandemic.
Hospitals in the area are edging closer to capacity, especially Garfield County, and leaders in Pitkin County are hoping a new travel affidavit for visitors will help stem another rise in local cases as the busy holiday season picks up.
A spate of deaths in Garfield County
Garfield County reported 10 new COVID-19 deaths in just one week, with eight of the deaths occurring between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6. The other two happened earlier in November, but were reported to the coroner’s office later. The virus has killed sixteen people in Garfield County since the pandemic began, with two more deaths pending confirmation.
Of the ten recent deaths, six were associated with long-term care facilities. The eight people who died during the first week of November ranged in age from 53-98 years old. Robert Glassmire, county coroner, said the “influx” of deaths was something his office was “not used to.”
County public health experts said deaths in nursing homes and similar facilities are more likely when cases are surging in the public at large, because there is an increased risk that employees or visitors will bring the virus into those facilities. Outbreaks occurred at the Veterans Affairs Community Living Center and E. Dene Moore nursing home in Rifle, and Renew in Glenwood Springs.
Garfield County commissioners have balked at implementing tighter public health restrictions, even in the face of skyrocketing coronavirus rates that are the highest in the Roaring Fork Valley and more severe than at any other point in the pandemic.
In a meeting Monday, the commissioners were faced with public comments from residents who plead for tighter restrictions and stronger messaging from the body. In their responses to multiple different comments, commissioners mostly pushed back. In one exchange, commissioner Tom Jankovsky told a concerned commenter that COVID-19 is no deadlier than the flu – a claim that has been widely refuted by health experts.
Commissioners cited the harsh effects of the disease on older people as a reason to focus protection of that demographic rather than broader public health measures – although a significant majority of the county’s cases are among people 20-40 years old.
Despite their efforts and comments to keep the county from facing harsher restrictions, Garfield County was moved into the “red” level of pandemic restrictions in accordance with the state’s COVID-19 dial on Thursday. Under that second-most-strict tier of pandemic protocols, indoor dining, indoor public gatherings, and bars that do not serve food are all shut down, while offices and gyms are limited to 10% of capacity.
But county commissioners voted Thursday during a special session to classify more businesses as "essential" to allow them to have more capacity.
“I’m shocked and disappointed by the state of Colorado,” said Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. “This really hurts gyms and restaurants. From my perspective, it’s discriminatory against these businesses and those who work for them. It’s a shutdown through the holidays.”
Many of Garfield County’s COVID-19-related deaths have been among those with “comorbidities,” other health issues that increase the risk of death for someone who has contracted the virus. However, the coroner said of the county’s 16 deaths, he believed “at least 13” of those people would still be alive if it were not for COVID-19.
Monitoring hospital capacity
Garfield County’s hospitals are being pushed toward full capacity. Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs saw more COVID-19 patients the week of Thanksgiving than it did through the entire spring.
Rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, including an expected uptick from Thanksgiving transmission, mean hospitals could be flooded with new patients quickly and pushed to the brink.
“Next thing you know you have someone who needs to be admitted for COVID and there’s not room at your hospital or any surrounding hospital,” said Dr. Kevin Coleman, chief medical officer at Grand River.
At Grand River, hospitalization rates have gone up alongside rising rates of COVID-19 in the community. The hospital expanded its capacity by about 50% to deal with the pandemic, but its designated COVID-19 unit has been “pretty consistently full over the last two to three weeks,” Coleman said. And even with expanded bed capacity, an influx of patients would strain the ability of staff to take care of them.
Some of the recent deaths in Garfield County involved Grand River patients.
“It’s heartbreaking, honestly,” Coleman said. “I don’t buy this idea that because someone is older, it doesn’t matter.”
Coleman urged people to wear masks, which would help to decrease transmission and, in turn, lighten the load on hospitals. Even though they are not 100% effective, he said, they are a useful tool in protecting other members of the community.
“It’s a reasonable request to say ‘please wear a mask when you’re in public and around others.’ I don’t think that’s a big ask. I don’t think that’s taking away somebody’s freedom. I’m a veteran, I know what freedom is,” Coleman said. “And I don’t think that’s a violation of it.”
New rules for visitors in Pitkin County
In Pitkin County, rates of COVID-19 have skyrocketed in the opening stretch of December, and health officials are setting up new pandemic measures ahead of a holiday season that typically brings an onslaught of out-of-town visitors to the area.
The county announced it would require all visitors from outside of the Roaring Fork Valley to sign an affidavit before arriving – requiring those over 10 years old to procure a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before arriving, remain symptom-free for 10 days before arrival, or quarantine for ten days if they have not completed a test. Those requirements do not apply to residents of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
Although the affidavit is required for visitors arriving on or after Dec.14, it has already been filled out more than 500 times as of Thursday morning, the county said.
Failure to fill out the affidavit or follow its requirements is punishable by a fine up to $5,000 or jail time. But county officials hope that communication with visitors will help avoid violations and punishment. In a call with reporters, Jon Peacock, county manager, said he thinks the county will have “good compliance.”
“We have a lot of confidence in our community and visitors to do the right thing,” he said.
While some states have instituted similar measures, few if any county governments have done the same. County officials said they took cues from states like Massachusetts and Maine when designing the affidavit program. They expect to keep it in place “for the foreseeable future” or until the standing public health order is amended.
The new requirements will go into effect amid record-high coronavirus rates in the county. The 14-day rolling average for new cases reached 170 this week, smashing previous records. That mark is more than four times the pre-fall high, and even substantially more than any day in November, when the statistic hovered near 100 until a sharp rise at the end of the month.
In busy years, the Christmas and New Year holiday period has meant more than 50,000 people are present in Pitkin County, which is more than double the county’s usual year-round population. A decrease in the number of international visitors could put a dent in that total during the pandemic winter. Summer visitorship data for 2020 shows a dropoff from the year before, but by August, occupancy in Aspen was only 20% lower than the same month in 2019.
Testing throughout the valley
More than eight months into the pandemic, free COVID-19 testing sites have suddenly been popping up across the Roaring Fork Valley.
“At this point, we should be flooding the market with testing because that's the only way we're going to be able to identify those who are asymptomatic and transmitting the virus to others,” said Dr. Brooke Allen, a local neurologist and a member of Pitkin County’s medical advisory team.
The team is a group of physicians that look at data and make recommendations to the public health board. In recent weeks, Allen led a group of community partners, including the three county health departments, to set up five free test sites from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
“I was able to get to know some of the folks who are on the front lines and we decided that there was a broader need for free testing sites without a doctor's referral or visit throughout our counties,” Allen said.
She said local public health agencies have been asking for more testing since March, but the state only started providing these new tests in recent weeks. Allen explained the reason for that, like with all things during the pandemic, is complicated.
“For instance, our counties do not have more people than other counties in the state and so while it may seem like we should have first priority for tests, we don't,” Allen said.
In addition to population, state public health officials said they distribute tests to communities based on social vulnerability and disease transmission metrics.
“We are supporting pop-up community testing sites in certain communities to ensure equitable access to tests. We distribute testing materials as soon as they are made available to the state,” the Colorado Department of Health and Environment said in a statement.
Allen pointed out that another reason for the sudden influx of testing sites is that the state ramped up its testing supplies to help local public health agencies keep pace with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. State officials confirmed this and said they’ve been working to diversify their test acquisitions in recent months by setting up relationships and contracts directly with domestic and international suppliers.
In the coming weeks, Allen said they’ll be working with local nonprofit Voces Unidas de las Montañas to spread awareness about the new test sites among Latino and Spanish-speaking communities in the valley.
“We want to make sure we’re really providing bilingual resources to individuals who might need a little extra assistance getting registered on the website,” she said.
Information in Spanish and English about the free testing sites is available at rfvcovidtest.com. Another bilingual list of community testing sites is available at The Aspen Community Foundation website.
Garfield County will be partnering with the state’s public health department on a three-day COVID-19 testing event as well. The announcement came right before the county moved to “red” on the state’s COVID-19 dial Thursday night.
Officials will open free test sites in New Castle, Parachute and Rifle from Dec. 13-15. Residents can walk up or pre-register online to save time, and people aren’t required to have a o doctor referral, ID or health insurance to get a free test.
Garfield County Public Health has a list of testing sites on their website.