The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County has dropped sharply over the course of the past two weeks. That number is steadily declining from a peak on Jan. 15, when the county’s two-week incidence rate was the highest in the state by a significant margin.
Despite new infections cropping up in hundreds of residents in the beginning of January, Aspen Valley Hospital was never overwhelmed. Medical experts say that is likely the result of caution in the community.
“Aspen is well-educated and knows that if the incidence rate is high they should really maintain all those measures that they can to prevent getting the illness themselves,” said Catherine Bernard, an emergency room physician and chief of medical staff at Aspen Valley Hospital.
Bernard added that older people, who are more likely to become severely ill with the disease, took particular care to keep themselves from being exposed.
“We did not see a lot of hospital admissions because the majority of cases were in those younger ranges," she said. "The 20-50 age range is really where the majority of cases were. And those people tend to get less sick.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 57% of all cases in Pitkin County were residents between the ages of 20 and 50 years old.
This January, the hospital has admitted five patients who were suspected to have COVID-19, but only three were confirmed positive, as of Jan. 27. Bernard said the majority of patients she has seen are Pitkin County residents.
The hospital never ascended to “cautious” or “concerning” levels of average daily visits or inpatient hospitalization since the beginning of the new year. Those are the top two levels on a three-tiered chart designed to gauge when the hospital might be getting overwhelmed.
Also in that stretch, the hospital did not have to transfer any patients out of Aspen to another hospital. The practice of shipping critical COVID-19 patients to Grand Junction and Denver for a higher level of care has been part of Aspen Valley Hospital’s treatment strategy since the early days of the pandemic.
The general health of Pitkin County residents has also likely played a role in keeping hospitalizations down.
“This population here in Aspen and Pitkin County is very healthy for their age,” Bernard said. “As we get older in age, we see less chronic illness. If you look at the data the county puts out, the majority of our cases do not have a comorbidity.”
A comorbidity is an underlying health condition that increases the chances a person will die if they are infected with the coronavirus.
“Pitkin County is one of the healthier counties in the country, so there may be a propensity to sort of fight off COVID a little bit differently than other populations,” said Josh Vance, Pitkin County epidemiologist.
Rates of COVID-19 have also been declining in Garfield County, dropping steadily since mid-December, except for a slight bump about a week into the new year. Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs has seen 29 COVID-19 patients in the new year. Garfield County’s population is more than triple the population of Pitkin County.
Stacey Gavrell, a spokeswoman for Valley View, said the hospital has not been pushed to a critical threshold, so far evading November forecasts of an overwhelming winter to come.
“Hospitalizations have thankfully come down from higher levels,” Gavrell said. “In recent days and weeks, they have been stable, which has offered an incredibly helpful reprieve to our staff and hopefully a larger reflection of where transmission has been in our community or at least Garfield County.”
The local declines in incidence rates are in line with a statewide trend. Dave Ressler, CEO of Aspen Valley Hospital, said that is good news for hospitals.
“Having that high incidence rate is a little bit like defending a castle on a hill,” he said. “You know there are a ton of enemies out there in the woods, and when that incidence rate drops, the number of enemies drops, and so does the likelihood of them penetrating our defenses.”