The Pitkin County Board of Health on Wednesday extended the most recent local public health order until the end of the month with the understanding that it could — and likely will be — extended beyond that.
On March 23, the county issued a stay-at-home order that restricted residents from leaving their homes except for reasons pertaining to health, to obtain food for themselves or their pets, or to recreate while following previously mandated social distancing guidelines.
Additionally, the order temporarily closed nonessential businesses and asked visitors to return to their respective homes. The order had been set to end on April 17 until Wednesday’s extension.
There was some debate during the health board’s special meeting Wednesday afternoon as to whether the order should be extended until April 30 or if the decision should be made after more information becomes available, to better inform the extension’s duration.
But when the Aspen School District announced on Wednesday that students would not be returning to campuses until at least April 30 — per Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order — County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who also is a health board member, moved to follow suit.
Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said that new information changes the landscape daily, but state officials recently told her that Colorado may not experience a COVID-19 peak until June.
“I believe we’ll have to go longer than the 30th, I’m pretty confident that’s going to happen,” she said. “We're going to have to keep evaluating that; we don’t know when the peak is going to happen. We also know with suppression strategies, this is hard. This is really hard for people. How do we keep people complying with it long term?”
At this juncture, officials expressed as much concern for people’s mental well-being as for their physical health.
“I truly, truly believe that COVID-19 is just one aspect of this whole response,” Koenemann said. “We really want to be thinking about long-term implications of people’s health, and that is long after COVID-19. I take this really heavily — the public health order is changing people’s lives; it’s changing the economy; it’s changing people’s ability to make a living and have what they need. We know that this is impacting people long term — it’s touching people’s mental health.”
Board member and Aspen City Councilmember Ann Mullins echoed those concerns when explaining her decision to support the extension to April 30.
“I think if we extend it to the end of May, beginning of June or something, I think that would be just devastating to people,” she said. “I don’t think people in town quite realize what’s happening because there hasn’t been a spike yet. I think in this case, for people to prepare themselves for what’s really a mental challenge … we present it in increments.”
Aspen Mayor Torre, after asking questions ranging from safety protocol for those still working and handling food to updates regarding testing, let some of his emotions show during the virtual meeting.
“I know it goes without saying, but boy, this sucks. I’m more than wanting to abide by the safest protocols here, but boy, this … it’s hurting, already,” he said.
As for his question regarding an update on getting broader testing to the community, Pitkin County manager Jon Peacock — who attended the meeting as staff and not a member of the health board — offered new insights, albeit some disappointing ones.
“The company has still not confirmed a delivery date, so we’re still waiting on that,” he said, adding that initial hopes had been for a delivery update this week. “In the meantime, we also found there were specificity problems with the test relating to it picking up other coronavirus — which happens to be the common cold, I understand — and maybe providing false positives. Unfortunately, we’re finding as we try to apply facts and science to this, all of these tests have [problems].”
In the interim, the county is publishing data collected from its self-reporting symptom tracker and relying on suppression strategies outlined in local and state public health orders.
In some ways, the need for longer term suppression strategies could be the result of relatively successful compliance in the state, Pitkin County Medical Officer Kim Levin noted. By flattening the epidemiological curve of the disease outbreak, it also extends the duration of the event.
“If we flatten the curve, we are making it longer,” she said. “This may be a longer haul than we think, and we need to think about the psychology of what this is going to do to people. None of us know how this is going to play out, and we’re doing our best to try to figure it out.”
To ensure further compliance with social distancing guidelines, the board also unanimously voted to change the current public health order curtailing gatherings of more than 10 people to those of more than five, barring immediate family or those who share a residence.
And while the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office don’t have the resources to fully enforce the orders, Levin was hopeful that community members would hold each other accountable for the greater good.
“I think a lot of this enforcement needs to be the responsibility of every community member in terms of policing each other in a positive way,” she said. “Creating a culture where that’s allowed and that’s encouraged, and it’s a good thing to … give a friendly shout-out to each other.”
Additionally, the board passed an order mandating that second-homeowners and their respective company recognize a 14-day self-quarantine upon arrival in Aspen, a move that came one day after the local Incident Management Team announced that it has asked global online vacation-rental agencies Airbnb and VRBO to stop accepting bookings for Aspen and Pitkin County properties.
“Coming to altitude is not a great idea at this point in time. Also, coming to a place where there is an absolute stay-at-home order, there’s not much to do,” Koenemann said. “That’s the message to second-home owners: We love you, but not right now. Please don’t come.”
For more information, watch The Daily Update with Mayor Torre and Megan Tackett, reporter of the above story.