Days before the Fourth of July, and with Aspen’s downtown core abuzz with pedestrians, the local hospital reported its community testing capacity has surpassed 16 tests per day — enough to elevate the COVID-19 monitoring metric from “comfortable” to “cautious.”
In response, Aspen Valley Hospital has doubled its daily testing capacity to 32 and patients will be able to receive the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests that detect whether the novel coronavirus is present in the body seven days a week.
“In addition, after having conducted over 1,100 tests, the positive rate stands at 7%, but has been higher in recent days and weeks and is climbing,” according to an AVH press release sent Wednesday.
Still, daily testing capacity is just one of three metrics the hospital uses to monitor overall ability to manage spikes in COVID-19. Inpatient hospitalization and the number of health care workers out of commission due to illness are the others, and both remain in the “comfortable” range — as of now.
“We anticipate that the increase in testing and positive test results will translate to increased demand for evaluation, emergency, and supportive care at the hospital within one to two weeks and beyond,” according to the release. “The hospital’s other measure, essential health care workers with illness, will also be likely to rise as the incidence of virus in the community increases.”
Generally speaking, it takes about 28 days — or two life cycles of the virus — before reliable data become available regarding any upticks in the number of cases in the aftermath of loosened social and economic restrictions, public health officials have repeated since COVID-19 was first identified in Pitkin County in March.
And it’s typically another 10 to 14 days before new cases result in hospitalizations.
As such, both hospital and public health officials underscored the need for caution as the town’s businesses brace for the holiday weekend.
“We are concerned about the overall trend, and we are watching the data extremely closely,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. “Our biggest point of caution heading into the Fourth of July is social gatherings. Other outbreaks associated with restaurants and such, we’ve been able to contain those. As people are looking at their calendars, really thinking, ‘How can I minimize my social interactions and the number of folks I’m seeing?’”
Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann reiterated the 65% benchmark during a board of health meeting Thursday. That is, whatever “normal” is for someone’s social life, that person should be eliminating 35% of those activities.
While no new COVID-19 cases were recorded anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley on Wednesday, according to the Pitkin County website, Pitkin County on Monday saw five new cases — and Garfield County recorded 21.
In the week ending June 28, Pitkin County added 16 new cases to its tally. That number is particularly concerning because the county’s variance from statewide directives — which allows the county to permit group sizes of more than 10 people, for instance — hinges on the county not seeing more than 18 new cases in a week.
That said, Peacock clarified, there is some discrepancy between how the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment views the number of cases versus how Pitkin County reports its data.
CDPHE, when determining whether or not a county qualifies to keep its variance, focuses only on the number of cases among residents of that county. Pitkin County, on the other hand, reports all cases that came from positive results at AVH.
“When we’re reporting the 16 cases and such, that’s based on all the testing that AVH is doing,” Peacock said. “The 18 cases and our variance, it’s Pitkin County cases. So as we’re capturing folks from other counties, those wouldn’t count against those 18.”
That means tourists, too, who test positive while visiting Aspen will not ultimately be included in the data CDPHE uses to consider the future of Pitkin County’s variance — although some of the numbers from AVH include patients who are visiting from out of town.
“We do have some imported cases,” Peacock said.
The influx of cases is not unique to the Roaring Fork Valley. On Tuesday, after two straight weeks of increases in the number of reported cases across the state, Gov. Jared Polis reversed his June 19 decision to allow bars to reopen at 25% capacity or 50 people. That move will not impact Pitkin County directly, however, as the health board opted not to follow suit during its Thursday meeting at the behest of Koenemann to continue a slower, phased economic reopening.
Still, Peacock emphasized the point that while the increasing rate and number of infections if concerning — albeit expected as public health restrictions have been lifted since May 27 — June does not resemble March.
“In March, our positivity rate for the tests we were doing was near 60%. Now, it’s 7%,” he said. “We just didn’t have the testing capacity then. We didn’t have the capacity for contact tracing then. So there’s some good news there.”