The Pitkin County Coroner’s Office on Thursday confirmed the first death of a county resident that was caused by COVID-19.
At the outset of an online community meeting held Thursday, Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury offered her “deepest sympathies” to the friends and family of the 94-year-old man who died Tuesday of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“On a somber note, I am very saddened to inform that we’ve learned today that Pitkin County has suffered our first death in our community as a result of the COVID virus,” McNicholas Kury announced.
The victim — who was said to have had serious underlying medical issues — died at his home in Aspen, according to a news release from the Pitkin County Incident Management Team. While he had been suffering “from COVID-like symptoms,” the release states, he had not been diagnosed prior to his death.
County officials received confirmation of the infection early Thursday from the Pitkin County coroner. After-the-fact testing confirmed the virus’ presence, and the official cause of death was ruled “complications of COVID-19 infection” in a natural manner, according to Coroner Steve Ayers’ report.
The man had been ill for three days, the report notes, and the man’s identity will not be released until his family is able to notify those close to him.
“As this demonstrates, we are going through an unprecedented experience, and I know the individual feelings can range from uncertainty to real despair,” McNicholas Kury said. “People are scared for their own health and the health of those they love the most.”
Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann, who also gave an update on the COVID-19 response during the community meeting, expressed remorse in the IMT statement.
“Our hearts are heavy having learned of this first death in our community’s struggle against the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “We especially want the family of the victim to know how sorry we are. We know our community will support each other with kindness and compassion in recognition of the significance of this loss.”
During the community meeting, officials from the IMT, Aspen Valley and Valley View hospitals, and Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt all offered both recaps and updates on their respective responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Every day, we’re learning new information about the virus. I would say it’s an evolving world right now in science,” Koenemann said. “We learn, again, new things every day. As a community, we’re really trying to pivot and be reactive and responsive to the new information that we learn, and we have continued to be fairly aggressive and proactive in our strategies.”
And while strategies have shifted from one of containment to mitigation after establishing that the coronavirus has spread through the community beyond an initial group of Australian tourists — to the current strategy of suppression as outlined in local and state “stay at home” mandates — authorities are now balancing how best to continue pursuing responsible but aggressive reactions while conserving valuable resources.
“We recognize that there is an epidemiological need for testing in the community to understand the transmission of the virus, but until we have the personal protective equipment [PPE], that is a precious commodity,” Koenemann said. “And right now, even with the latest national stockpile shipment [to] the state of Colorado government, they’ve had two shipments so far, and those two shipments are enough for two operational days.”
Aspen Ambulance District Director Gabe Muething noted during his update that if a new rapid-testing model recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pans out the way Englewood-based Aytu Bioscience promises, the county should see an influx of COVID-19 tests that don’t require the same administrative resources as current swab-test model.
“We hope to find out soon when those tests will be distributed,” he said. “We are on the list. One of the questions with the rapid tests, of course, is how is this different with PPE, how is it different with personnel? The rapid test is done with a small needlestick. The good news is it doesn’t produce any aerosolized virus, so we will be able to use less PPE, less personnel, and it would be a much more efficient type of testing.”
Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dave Ressler identified hospital beds, PPE and venitillators among prioritized resources, among hospital personnel. He said so far, the hospital has admitted 10 patients because of COVID-19 symptoms.
“And we presently today have two patients in the hospital, one of which is critical,” he said. “We’re starting to see more critical, sicker patients now, probably related to the lifecycle of the virus. The volumes are still relatively light, but again, we are seeing sicker patients. And we already transferred one patient a few days ago to a higher level of care at a lower altitude — which, by the way, is what our plan is for patients we expect to require mechanical ventilation.”
Currently AVH has five mechanical ventilators, “which is a significant number for a hospital of our size, but we want to keep a couple of them available for transports,” Ressler said. “Going back to the creativity of a surge plan, we also use ventilators for general anesthesia.”
Across the state, 148 patients have been hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Human Services. Pitkin County’s 23 cases represent about 1.6 percent of the state’s 1,430 cases. On Thursday, the United States became the country with the most reported cases of COVID-19 in the world with 82,404, surpassing China.