It’s thanks to the community that Pitkin County COVID-19 case numbers are not in the red, and it’s up to the community to keep it that way heading into the off-season.
That was the main takeaway from Public Health Director Karen Koenemann at Tuesday’s joint session of the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners.
She said that after a post-July Fourth surge, the community’s positive case numbers have returned to less worrying levels.
“In the last week or so, we are a little bit more cautiously optimistic,” Koenemann said. “It doesn't mean we are taking our foot off the gas.”
Epidemiologist Josh Vance, one of 17 new full-time employees Pitkin County has hired to handle the pandemic, presented the local representatives with the most recent data, which he compiles daily.
Pitkin County has seen 181 positive COVID-19 test results since the pandemic began. The number includes residents or visitors of more than one month’s stay. His team does contact tracing with all positive cases, however — those have resulted in about three contacts per infected individual. The average age of local positive cases is 47, though the 20- to 30-year-old range is currently spiking.
Retirees are the most likely to test positive, he continued, and — as has been observed since the worldwide outbreak — those with underlying health conditions such as thyroid disease are experiencing the worst symptoms.
“We are noticing that individuals who are immunocompromised appear to be more ill than the rest,” Vance said.
Right now, there is about a week turnaround time from an individual experiencing symptoms to receiving their test results, as the county is seeing people wait a handful of days before they decide to seek testing. Then, it’s another handful of days before the test results are reported. In order to be most effective in contact tracing and using the “box-it-in” strategy of isolation and quarantine, Vance said that turnaround time needs to be reduced.
Eight new cases were reported Monday, totaling 37 in the last two weeks. Vance said the goal would be to only average one new case per day.
“We are significantly higher than where we want to be,” he said.
Twenty percent of positive cases are from visitors — whose numbers are not counted among Pitkin County records, which only reflect those of county residents — but the individuals are included in the same contact tracing efforts as locals. Vance said for the most part, he has not seen visitor cases spread to locals or vice versa.
“They tend to infect those they are here with,” he said.
But the population is at the point in which the majority of cases are from community spread, which means the individual does not know where they contracted the virus. Vance said the ideal percentage of positive cases where an individual cannot trace where they contracted COVID-19 would be 5%.
In Pitkin County, that number is 40%.
The unknown origins of new cases is mirrored in Eagle and Garfield counties, who are both in the red on their “COVID meters,” based on the rising number of cases, Vance explained.
Koenemann said her team is keeping a close eye on the public health numbers in the rest of the valley because there is so much travel between the three counties for work and recreation.
“We are a little more cautious and a little more alert right now because of what is happening next door,” she said.
The elected officials praised the data collection that the public health team prepared. They discussed what they could do from their seats to assist, especially moving into the school year and the eventual winter season.
“It's important to do what we can to start discussing that in advance,” said Rachel Richards, city council member.
County Manager Jon Peacock said that the elected bodies may be faced with zoning decisions about outdoor structures and the use of public space in order to keep the economy running without crowding diners or customers into businesses.
“Distance is still our best friend,” Peacock said.
Koenemann said the standard flu vaccine will be imperative this year in allowing health professionals to separate out and concentrate on COVID-19 cases.
Commissioner Steve Child said he suspects he has contracted the coronavirus, though he has tested negative for COVID-19. He shared his experience of operating at 50% capacity since the spring.
“There are people in our community who are experiencing this right now,” Child said. “There are people in our community who have been sick for five months now.”
Vance said that even patients in their 30s have experienced lasting symptoms from the infection. His team will soon begin to follow up with positive cases in an effort to obtain more data about the continued repercussions of the disease.
“You are right — there are people who are suffering,” Vance said. “This isn't a flu. It's not a cold. You don't just get over it and that's it.”