While Pitkin County officials are not anticipating major changes in the updated public health order that will take effect Friday — the current mandate sunsets at the end of the week — it will likely address what’s become a trend of resistance to COVID-19 contact tracing efforts.
“We’re ... experiencing in our contact tracing team reluctance in people participating from our contact tracing, which is really important for [the box-it-in strategy], so that team is looking at ways to create a strategy that encourages participation,” Pitkin County Deputy Manager Phylis Mattice told county commissioners during a Tuesday work session.
“They’ve actually had people hang up the phone when they’re calling and trying to contact trace, which is not helpful — at all,” she continued.
In response, county officials drafting an updated public health order are working on including language that will include contact tracing participation explicitly as an aspect of the new directive. The Pitkin County Board of Health meets Thursday.
“Stronger language around participating in investigation, so people that are hanging up, we have something that has a little more teeth in it for them. That’ll come about Friday,” Mattice said.
Additionally, the new order will specify that travelers be free of COVID-19 symptoms for at least 10 days before arriving in Pitkin County. That update comes directly from a recommendation the medical advisory team made to the health board during its June 25 meeting.
It’s not without precedent, Dr. Kim Levin, the county’s medical officer and an emergency department physician at both Aspen Valley and Valley View hospitals, noted during that meeting.
“If you look at what New York and New Jersey is considering doing — 14-day quarantine for any visitor coming from a state with numbers on the rise — this is kind of a similar but much softer way of doing that: You are welcome to come in, but please be symptom free for 10 days before coming here,” she said.
Commissioner Greg Poschman — who also serves on the board of health — brought up Alaska Airlines’ newly unveiled “yellow card” policy as an example of a travel company more avidly enforcing face coverings and other public health protocols.
“A yellow card is not a badge of honor,” Poschman said.
A recipient of a yellow card — the tangible notice of noncompliance that flight attendants may issue to passengers — could result in that person being barred from future travel with the airline.
“This is your final notice to comply with our policy,” the card says. “Next, we will file a report, which could result in the suspension of future travel of Alaska Airlines.”
While no enforcement strategy that aggressive is anticipated locally — Mattice repeated her county colleagues’ previous statements that the approach will continue to be educational rather than punitive if at all possible — Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury expressed a desire to see more pervasive communication to the public about the rules.
“I understand that over the weekend there was a ping sent out to all cell phones within a certain geographic area with information about our requirements, regardless of where your cell phone number generates from or whether you signed up for Pitkin Alert,” she said. “Our visitors are coming through multiple channels of entry, so pinging people’s cell phones, I think, is a really straightforward and direct way to alert people what our requirements are.”
Travelers — including Pitkin County residents returning home after travels of their own — account for 30-50% of COVID-19 cases since June 20, Mattice said. A recent uptick in cases, as well as a creeping positivity rate among completed tests, could keep Pitkin County from qualifying for the more lenient “protect our neighbors” phase of economic reopening scheduled to start at the end of this month. Currently, the county does not meet the criteria for the next phase.
“That needs to be less than 10% and no more than a trend of 14 [new cases per week],” she said. “So we’re not meeting that.”
On Tuesday, Pitkin County reported three new positive cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus; Garfield County reported nine the same day, and Eagle County saw its caseload increase by six. In each of the last two weeks, Pitkin County reported 16 cases — and 15 the week before that.
People who have been exposed to COVID-19 but are not cooperating with the investigations of contact tracers is a chief concern among factors that could undermine the county’s box-it-in containment strategy, Mattice said.
“We also have people coming in on their private planes and then flying out on their private planes,” she said, noting that those travelers are less likely to see the public messaging about the city of Aspen and Pitkin County’s public health orders.