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Q&A: Pitkin County Public Health talks about why strict COVID-19 measures remain in place

Continued winter tourism, COVID-19 fatigue, variants and a changing population could all play a part in Pitkin County's high COVID-19 incidence rate.

PITKIN COUNTY, Colo. — In January, Pitkin County officials voted to voluntarily return to Level Red on the state dial because their incidence rates of COVID-19 were the highest in the state. 

They are now in the slightly less restrictive phase of Orange, but are only one of two counties in that level. Summit County will go backward and join them on Wednesday, April 7. 

Both counties are seeing most of their cases in young adults in the 20s and 30s. 

9NEWS sat down with Pitkin County's Interim Director of Public Health Jordana Sabella to learn more.

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: In January you didn't know why your incidence rates were so high, but now you have a better idea?

Sabella: Their data [state mobility data] clearly shows that when you have an influx of visitors that incidence rates tend to follow that...We also have the second-highest [in the state] for the percentage of variants in the positive cases.

There's also a question about how incidence rates are calculated and your population, is that right? 

Sabella: The denominator where it’s calculated is based off the census data so what we know is some of those people who are being counted as residents because they’re here for an extended period of time may not be counted in our census data...So we think that denominator is not as large as it should be to reflect who are permanent residents in Pitkin County.

Your positivity rate has gotten close to 10% recently, are you hopeful you can keep it below that? 

Sabella: Always hopeful...Contact tracers are successfully reaching out to most residents who test positive and their contacts. We're capturing most of the positive cases in our community which while it might make us bump up in the dial, ultimately we are seeing very low rates of hospitalization and death.

Many of the visitors you see are driving from the Denver area or other counties that have much fewer restrictions, what's your message to them?

Sabella: What we see is there’s a difference between how people act when they’re on vacation and then how people act when they’re here and home. We’re almost there. The pandemic isn’t over yet, we want to remain open to visitors and tourism is an important part of our economy and we just ask that when visitors do come here they still do the things that we know work to prevent the transmission of COVID. Mask orders are still in place, distancing, continuing to practice good hygiene and keeping the bubble as small as you can with your household.

Do you think the end of ski season will mark an end to a high incidence rate? 

Sabella: We're always hopeful.

Sabella said she believes when the population shrinks back down and vaccinations continue, they will see a dent in the incidence rates. Recently 1,000 newly eligible residents signed up for Johnson & Johnson vaccine appointments in 15 minutes. 

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