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Some Colorado mountain communities see surge in COVID-19 cases

Pitkin County said their COVID-19 case count quadrupled in the past five days.

PITKIN COUNTY, Colo. — As COVID-19 concerns continue to rise once again in the United States, in part due to the omicron variant, Colorado is seeing it's fair share of cases.

Some mountain communities have been hit particularly hard.

Over the past five days, COVID cases in Pitkin County have quadrupled, according to a release from the county. The incidence rate is about 900 cases per 100,000, and more than 1,200 tests for COVID-19 were scheduled on Thursday alone.

Also this week, Eagle County made the move to reinstate a mask mandate indoors to help limit transmissions.

"This is a necessary precaution for our community to help slow down ongoing transmission," said Heath Harmon at the county's Board of Health meeting on Wednesday. Harmon is the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment.

As Eagle County tries to ramp up testing, Pitkin County has a mitigation plan in case hospital capacity becomes an issue.

Credit: FILE
A sign signifying that there is a mask mandate in Eagle County.

Pitkin County

Pitkin County has had an indoor mask mandate for a while now, but Phylis Mattice, the county's deputy director, said people not wearing masks has been a common complaint.

"And right now, that's an excellent mitigation, easy practice for people to employ and help us all stay safe," she said.

While they expected cases to rise, and believe the omicron variant is in part to blame, they didn't think it would happen so quickly. 

"We just didn't expect the speed that these that the increase has happened. That surprised us," Mattice said. "Yes, we have a lot of visitors, but we also have residents that have gone somewhere and come back and residents that are here and it's just in the community."

In November, the county approved its winter mitigation plan, which implements COVID-19 restrictions based off of Aspen Valley Hospital's (AVH) capacity.

As of Thursday, the capacity for patients and outpatient transfers were both listed as "cautious."

Meanwhile, staffing levels are at a "concerning" level. That statistic tracks the amount of essential health-care workers who are not able to work because of COVID-19.

According to the county's winter mitigation plan, the suspension of all elective surgeries at AVH would lead to 50% capacity restrictions at most indoor spaces (not schools), or 100% vaccine verification by businesses.

If Aspen Valley Hospital were to enter its crisis standards of care, a stay at home order would be implemented, travelers would be ordered to return home, only essential businesses would be able to operate and schools would have to at least consider going remote.

"Well, right now we're trying education, making sure everyone knows what they need to do and that we are monitoring hospitalizations. And if there's a change in capacity in our local hospital, we will put additional mitigation measures in place," Mattice said.

As of now, despite significant numbers of people scheduling COVID-19 tests, Pitkin County said it has the capacity.

"Capacity is not stretched out," Mattice said. "The capacity is there, and so people are getting tested, which is great. So we're hoping that that will help people understand their condition, whether they have COVID or not. And we'll do the right things and isolate if they do have a positive COVID result."

Credit: FILE
A ski lift in Pitkin County.

Eagle County 

At Wednesday's Board of Health meeting, Eagle County commissioners brought back the mask mandate to help slow down cases.

Chris Lindley with Vail Health is the chief population health officer and also serves as the incident commander for COVID-19 in the area.

He shared at Wednesday's meeting that Vail Health Hospital had 22 staff out with COVID-19.

"Obviously, they cannot work," Lindley said. "Today our emergency department is operating at two times the highest average it ever has. We're seeing two times the amount of volume of patients every day, every night. It's not sustainable. Our urgent cares are also seeing two times the amount of patients day and night. It's not sustainable."

He added that the state was sending in 18 nurses to help backfill the shortage. 

"We've identified in the last 24 hours, 280 new positive cases in this valley," he said, acknowledging that COVID-19 case statistics might be higher because the county also counts visitors to the area. "Right now, Vail probably has close to 100,000 visitors. Every hotel is full. Every AirBnB is full. People are up here skiing. We're testing those folks. One in three tests that we run for the last three days is positive for COVID. One in three. Whether this virus turns out to be mild or severe is yet to be known."

Lindley closed Wednesday saying that even if the virus was one-tenth the strength of the delta variant, considering the rise in cases, there is "no question" that the hospital would be operating at the highest capacity they've seen. 

Testing for COVID-19 was also strained, but Harmon said they're working to add sites in several spots across the county, even going as far as asking the state to help facilitate capacity for testing.

"And so we're also looking at trying to ensure there might be additional testing resource that we can bring online for the town of Avon," he said. "One of the key reasons that we wanted to continue to do this is obviously one to meet the demand of the community and the visitors."

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