COVID-19 Cases “Skyrocket” As Community Awaits Board of Health Decision


The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released an updated COVID-19 status dial Tuesday, Nov. 17. The new dial adds a purple level, which would indicate stay-at-home orders.

The Pitkin County Board of Health will decide whether to up the ante on COVID-19 restrictions at a meeting Monday afternoon. Red level restrictions — as well as new metrics for entering and exiting that level — are on the table for consideration, but full shutdown and stay-at-home order under strict Purple level restrictions are unlikely, officials suggested Saturday.

The decision comes as COVID-19 cases continue to “skyrocket” in Pitkin County, according to an epidemiological analysis from Pitkin County Public Health. An influx of cases reported to the department over the weekend pushed Friday’s incidence rate to a new high of 3,046 cases per 100,000 people, according to a epidemiological report Sunday. Of the 1,492 Pitkin County COVID-19 cases recorded to date in Sunday’s report, nearly a third have occurred in the past two weeks.

At a rate of 30 to 40 cases per day, the county’s team of contact tracers can’t keep up, epidemiologist Josh Vance wrote in an email; the team has called those who have tested positive but haven’t reached out to exposed contacts due to the high numbers. This weekend, individuals who tested positive were responsible for outreach to exposed contacts.

“This is really the first time we have been so inundated that we’ve had to suspend contact tracing to get caught up,” he wrote.

A daily caseload of nine to 10 cases is the attainable standard, Vance wrote; beyond that threshold, it becomes increasingly difficult to slow the spread of the virus through contact tracing.

But those rising case numbers alone aren’t enough to automatically tip the scales on tighter restrictions.

The Board of Health has long maintained that the county would need to meet at least two of the three state COVID dial metrics (incidence rate, positivity rate and hospitalization rate and capacity) to enter a more restrictive level, on par with the state’s guidelines for COVID dial restrictions.

Even though the incidence rate is currently more than eight times the threshold for Red level restrictions, the county has stayed in the Orange level on the state’s COVID dial because the positivity rate has remained below the Red level threshold of 15% and because the hospitalization rate is in the Yellow level (stable or decreasing for 8 to 11 days), according to the state’s data dashboard.

Counties can voluntarily add more restrictions than the state requires if they see the need, which is why Pitkin County now sits in the “Orange-plus-plus” level designated by the Board of Health. Those guidelines apply Red level restrictions to every sector of business except for restaurants; eateries can still operate under the Orange level guidance that allows for indoor dining at 25% capacity.

That would change if the Board of Health votes to go into Red level restrictions or beyond Monday.

Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Madsen urged the board to “stay the course” and avoid “moving the goalposts” when decision time comes in a letter written on behalf of Town Council to the board Sunday. Madsen acknowledged rising COVID cases but also noted that modified restrictions could adversely impact the tangential effects of the pandemic — things like anxiety, economic hardship and emotional challenges.

“Changing the contract with the community, moving the goalposts or otherwise changing how the protocols and criteria are interpreted creates ill will within the community,” Madsen wrote. “We fear that a change will cause us to lose the voluntary compliance and understanding we have seen from the community and our businesses to date.”

Other local governing bodies will likewise consider community input and the impact of the decision in advance of Monday’s meeting.

The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners has received a number of phone calls and emails as public comment on the matter, according to Greg Poschman, a county commissioner and Vice Chair of the Board of Health. The commissioners will meet Monday morning to hear from staff and discuss the policy direction they will support at the Board of Health meeting later that day, Poschman wrote in a message.

Aspen City Council has discussed the upcoming decision but does not plan to issue an official statement or letter to the Board of Health prior to the meeting, according to Mayor Torre.

“We feel like the discussion that’s going to go on at the table tomorrow deserves a hearing before we make a proclamation,” Torre said Sunday.