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PitCo Leaders Talk Testing Capacity For COVID-19 And Ski Closures

Mar 16, 2020

Credit via Pitkin County

Health officials and community leaders livestreamed answers to questions from residents about COVID-19 during a Pitkin County community meeting Monday. Local leaders emphasized the importance of social distancing to stem the spread of the virus, and they provided updates on topics ranging from testing for coronavirus to getting food to people who need it.

COVID-19 Testing

Local testing is largely dictated by the priorities of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment according to David Ressler, CEO of Aspen Valley Hospital. That agency can only process 250 tests per day, and its first priority is testing healthcare workers.

The CDPHE’s second priority is to test critically ill patients. Those tests would be administered after someone is admitted to the hospital and a test is ordered by medical staff.

“If a person is having severe symptoms – difficulty breathing, respiratory distress – the hospital is the place to go,” Ressler said.

If medical staff determine that a patient is in severe enough condition, they could be transitioned elsewhere for a higher level of care. 

Broader community testing, outside of those who are critically ill, is a third priority. Ressler said local health officials have not received results in “over a week” after two days of aggressive testing of patients who have symptoms.

“That’s a testimony to the fact that the lab is really overwhelmed,” Ressler said. “That’s why they’re having to prioritize and focusing on the critically ill patients.”

A new way to track the virus

The county will soon launch a new survey-style way to track COVID-19 in the community.

Pitkin County Public Health director Karen Koenemann said the county plans to launch a “Google doc online format” for people to self-report symptoms and demographic information. The new survey will be made available in “the next few days,” she said. 

Ski season is a big question mark

Mike Kaplan, Aspen Skiing Company CEO, said the company will revisit reopening some mountains for “thoughtful, limited operations” if state and local authorities allow it after the governor’s order to shut down ski mountains expires on Sunday, March 22.

“I don’t know when it’s going to end,” Kaplan said. “We’re taking it week by week.”

Kaplan said Skico will end Buttermilk’s operations for the season, but is considering reopening others.

“We’ve officially called it at Buttermilk," Kaplan said. "Crews are on the ground right now tearing down the equipment and putting it away for the summer. The other three mountains remain on standby. We will take it week to week and be very thoughtful on that.”

Uphilling still remains an option on all four mountains, but Kaplan urges skiers to exercise caution and avoid injury, given the need for first responders to be available. 

“Just be careful,” Kaplan said. “Keep it on the easy stuff.”

Where to get help with food

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said emergency assistance programs are available to residents who are experiencing a crisis that affects their housing, employment, health, or wellbeing. That includes temporary aid for families in need of childcare, housing, and food.

For those in need of immediate food assistance, he identified the following resources:

  • Pitkin County Senior Services will deliver meals to those who qualify.
  • Aspen Family Connections provides food for families that qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the organization can help people who need help. They'll be at Aspen Middle School parking lot, March 17, 12:30 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
  • Food Bank of the Rockies will also be providing food assistance at the following locations and times:
    • Aspen U.S. Forest Service office, April 9, 11 a.m.
    • 111 Emma Rd. in Basalt, April 2
    • El Jebel Community Center, March 18, 11 p.m. 

The future of school closures 

Aspen School District Interim Superintendent Tom Heald said the district will monitor transmission of the virus over the next two weeks, and try to have a message out to the community “by midweek next week” if school closures will last longer than originally announced.

If schools stay closed, Heald said students and parents should anticipate more messages regarding remote or online learning, which might include paper packets for some of the grade levels.

Bars and restaurants remain open, for now

Koenemann said the county would likely release an order regarding bars and restaurants in the coming days. Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced Monday a 30-day order that directs bars and restaurants to cease dine-in service. The order does not prohibit those establishments from continuing with pickup or delivery service.

Peacock said an important factor for all employers is their ability to operate while practicing social distancing. Those practices include staying six feet away from other people, and having access to hand-washing facilities. 

“If a construction project or any employer can meet those conditions and achieve social distancing, there’s no reason for business to stop,” Peacock said. “If the nature of the business is such that those conditions cannot be met, then employers need to consider delaying or shutting that job or worksite down.”