New cases of COVID-19 continue to stack up in all three Roaring Fork Valley counties, making the pandemic more intense now than at any other point since it began. The area is creeping closer to new mandatory restrictions handed down from the state. With new transmission likely over the holiday, local public health experts say there is not a definite end in sight.
The spike in transmission is largely blamed on small gatherings of people from different households. Local public health experts say those are happening in social settings – like homes and restaurants – but also workplaces. The only way to turn things around, they say, is to limit those kinds of interactions.
“Unless people take a concerted effort to mitigate their own risk, our three county region is going to see these numbers continue to climb,” said Mason Hohstadt, Garfield County public health specialist. “There’s just no other way to discuss it. We’re not trying to instill fear, it’s just the reality.”
Mobility data shows that people are traveling more during the week, according to Hohstadt. To avoid catching the virus at work and bringing it home, he said, people should practice safety measures in the workplace – wearing masks and keeping distance from others.
Earlier this week, Gov. Jared Polis announced changes to the state’s “COVID-19 Dial,” a tiered system to gauge each county’s level of virus risk and impose restrictions accordingly. With counties across the state marching towards the highest level of danger – which would usher in strict state-mandated restrictions – Polis added a sixth level, or “purple” level, giving counties one last gasp to turn COVID-19 rates around.
Garfield County’s rate of new infections has skyrocketed this month, the sharpest increase of any county in the valley. In a stretch of just seven days this week, the 14-day rolling average for new cases rose by 65%.
This week, Garfield County announced that its contact tracers are overwhelmed with the influx of new cases, and are no longer able to follow up with each person who tests positive. The county now fields more than fifty new cases each day.
“That is a number we didn’t even fathom possible in July,” Hohstadt said.
Normally, every person who tests positive would get a call from a contact tracer urging them to isolate and interviewing them to identify others who might have been exposed.
Now, they are working seven days a week to get through a backlog of more than 150 open cases. Instead of taking them in the order they come in, the county is prioritizing case investigations based on age and occupation, as well as people involved in schools and childcare.
Hohstadt said the county is seeing a slight drop in the number of cases considered “community spread,” where new cases cannot be pegged to a known source of transmission.
The county is now in the “orange” level of the state’s dial, but according to a news release from Garfield County Thursday night, there are variances that will be in place. Offices with in-person employees, as well as indoor and outdoor events are capped at 25% capacity. Retail establishments remain at 50% and indoor restaurant rules remain the same.
These variances come after the county’s commissioners earlier this week petitioned the state to remain at the "yellow" level, and pushed back on the idea of moving into the next phase, further tightening restrictions on gatherings. Local media reported commissioners said there would be a psychological toll on residents if capacity was limited in businesses and houses of worship.
Virus rates in Eagle County have also risen sharply in November, and local officials say the culprit is, again, small gatherings among residents. Birch Barron, the county’s emergency manager, said the issue goes beyond in-home meetups and extends to small group gatherings in restaurants and other places of business – even ones that have taken extensive precautions against the pandemic.
“There’s nothing magical about an indoor public environment that makes it safe,” Barron said.
Eagle County is now seeing a two-week average of more than 30 new cases per day, far higher than the previous peak set in March. The state’s COVID-19 dial has the county in the “orange” level, with virus transmissions threatening to push it into “red.”
As new restrictions are laid on the county by the state, Barron said capacity mandates on local businesses are a matter of balance in an area where the tourism industry would be hit hard by strict limitations.
“We know that taking those steps effectively controls disease,” he said. “We saw it back in March. I think the question is, ‘How targeted can you be with those restrictions so that you recognize when you’re closing businesses, you’re causing a serious impact?’”
Only a small sliver of Eagle County extends into the Roaring Fork Valley, containing El Jebel and part of Basalt. Elsewhere in the county, Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas are facing some of the same pandemic concerns that hang over Aspen’s season. Barron said the main worry is the influx of visitors.
“There are actually a lot of protective factors,” he said. “You’re outside, you’re usually wearing a lot of clothes so hand to mouth contact and opportunities for the disease to enter your body are a lot lower. The challenge is really the density – the increase in the number of people in our county that happens with the ski season.”
In Pitkin County, new cases of the virus among residents rose by 55% in a stretch of just seven days. Aspen Valley Hospital is not yet overwhelmed, but doctors said hospitalizations generally lag behind increases in infections and a concerning number of hospital employees are sidelined with COVID-19-like symptoms.
In a Board of Health meeting on Thursday, health experts, local elected officials, doctors, and business owners from various sectors of the tourism industry hashed out potential changes to restrictions.
The state dial has the county in “orange,” and a representative from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment said the county was well on its way to “red.”
Business owners pushed back on hardline restrictions that would have shut some sectors down entirely, and endorsed a set of county-specific rules deemed “orange plus” – harsher than the state’s rules for that category, but stopping short of lockdown. Jimmy Yeager, the owner of Jimmy’s restaurant, said a total shutdown would be “catastrophic.”
Pitkin County officials also mulled precautionary measures for the fast-approaching winter season, considering a variety of ways to screen visitors upon entering. They considered a system by which all people arriving at the county’s airport would need to show a negative test and complete a questionnaire before entering.
Debbie Braun, Aspen Chamber Resort Association president, pointed out that less than 50% of travelers arrive through the Aspen Pitkin County airport, which spurred officials to consider expanding the protocols to drive-in visitors and run the system through lodging operators instead of the airport.
Mike Kaplan, Aspen Skiing Company CEO, said with the track the virus is on, the implementation of a reservation system to access the ski mountains is “likely.”