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Increased testing prompts Aspen hospital to move to ‘cautious’ phase

Aspen Valley Hospital moves from "comfortable" phase to "cautious" phase after increased requests for COVID-19 testing.
Credit: Aspen Times

ASPEN, Colo. — With more Pitkin County visitors and residents requesting COVID-19 tests in recent days, Aspen Valley Hospital moved from a “comfortable” phase to a “cautious” phase Wednesday, the hospital’s CEO said.

“Our rolling three-day average (for tests) is over 16 (people),” Dave Ressler said Wednesday.

AVH was previously able to handle up to 16 coronavirus tests per day, but effective Wednesday ramped up that capacity to 32 per day, Ressler said. If the hospital reaches that maximum of 32 per day, it will move to a “concerned” phase, which is the most serious and might require backtracking on reopening measures.

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Pitkin County reported five new positive COVID-19 cases Tuesday, which changed the trend in the county from “stable” to “increasing,” according to the public health department’s community report. The county is averaging two new virus cases per day over the past seven days, the report states.

Because of those rising numbers, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock urged visitors and residents to curb social activities during the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, traditionally Aspen’s busiest of the year.

“We are extremely concerned about social gatherings during the Fourth of July holiday,” he said Wednesday. “We need the community and our guests to help us out. Help us not spread this thing.”

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Social gatherings — where people often become lackadaisical about social distancing and contact — are the main sources of infection in Pitkin County, Peacock said.

“A lot of (COVID-19) cases we’ve seen have been traced back to social gatherings,” he said. “We really encourage limiting the number of contacts, which limits the likelihood you become infected or you infect others.”

While some recent outbreak clusters have been traced back to restaurants, most restaurants in Aspen and Pitkin County continue to observe compliance guidelines, Peacock said.

“Restaurants are not the main source of these outbreaks,” he said.

In addition, while some restaurant guests feel the need to make political statements and refuse to wear facemasks, most guests also have been compliant, he said.

“If people can’t make those minimum commitments to protect our community, then we would ask them to come back after the COVID crisis is over,” Peacock said.

Public health officials have continually urged residents and visitors to reduce normal social contacts by 65%, while also observing good hygiene, washing hands frequently, wearing facemasks and getting tested if they experience COVID-19 symptoms.

Peacock again urged people to continue to observe those strategies during the holiday weekend.

“For the Fourth of July, people might be used to hopping from gathering to gathering and we need people to really think about that,” he said. “Instead of going to three (parties), go to one.”

RELATED: Colorado coronavirus latest numbers, July 2

As of Wednesday, the positive COVID-19 rate in Aspen and Pitkin County stood at 7%, according to an AVH news release. That means that of more than 1,100 tests performed in the county so far, 7% have turned out positive, Peacock said.

If that rate rises to 10%, it will begin to set off alarm bells with public health officials because it means Pitkin County isn’t conducting enough tests and the likelihood of COVID-19 community spread is increasing, he said.

Still, the news Wednesday was not all bad.

While the testing numbers may sound alarming, Ressler pointed out that two other important Pitkin County metrics — the number of new COVID-19 hospitalizations and the number of AVH workers out sick with the virus — remains in the “comfortable” range. No one was hospitalized at AVH as of Wednesday, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

AVH officials, however, are watching the data closely and expect those metrics to rise in the upcoming weeks if the incidence of the virus increases, according to the AVH news release.

A portion of the increased testing requests are coming from Aspen and Pitkin County visitors, though Ressler said he was glad people are continuing to seek testing because it helps support the county’s “box-it-in” strategy for controlling infections. The hospital now can comfortably test anyone who needs a test.

Those with symptoms must consult with their primary care doctor first, who will prescribe a test at AVH if symptoms merit it.

The hospital also will be able to provide testing services seven days a week, including through the July 4 holiday, Ressler said.

Downvalley cases are increasing, as well.

Garfield County reported 21 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, which also knocked the county out of the “stable” phase and into the “increasing” phase, according to Pitkin County’s community report. Eagle County, though, reported just four new cases Tuesday and remains in “stable” territory, the report states.

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