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Garfield County Public Health awaiting shipment of COVID-19 omicron dose vaccine

Garfield County Public Health is awaiting the arrival of the newly approved Pfizer and Moderna updated COVID-19 omicron dose vaccines, according to a county news release sent out Wednesday.

The vaccines are designed to offer protection from both the original COVID-19 virus and the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, the release states.

Garfield County vaccine clinics will be announced once the vaccines are available. Booster doses of the original vaccine will not be provided by Public Health until the new omicron vaccine is available, it also states.

“As of Aug. 31, Pfizer and Moderna’s original COVID-19 vaccines are only authorized as primary series vaccines for people aged 12 years and older,” the release says. “People too young to receive an omicron dose can still receive a third dose of the original COVID-19 vaccine.” 

The Pfizer and Moderna omicron doses use the same mRNA-based technology as the original versions of the COVID-19 vaccines, the county’s release goes on to explain.

“Hundreds of millions of people have safely received an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. In clinical studies, the new omicron doses successfully stimulated the immune system to produce antibodies,” it states. “Antibodies are proteins in the blood that fight specific invaders in the body, such as viruses.”

Weekly Garfield County COVID-19 stats update

AS OF MONDAY, Aug. 29, 2022

Current Risk Level: Low

Recent 7-day case totals: Aug. 22-29 — 46

7-day incidence rate: 76.59 per 100,000 people

Percent of staffed inpatient hospital beds occupied by confirmed COVID-19 patients: 1.4%

New COVID-19 deaths: 0

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Garfield County turns to CDC for COVID-19 data

More than two years into the pandemic, Garfield County Public Health has changed the data sources reported on its COVID-19 data web page

According to a July 29 news release, the county’s COVID-19 data page is still active, but instead of calculating local information, it provides a central location for links to current state and federal COVID-19 data through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Department staff determined this is an appropriate time to change the way data is shared on its COVID-19 web page, the release states. The state and other county health departments have also reduced their frequency of COVID-19 data updates. 

Other useful sources include the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s wastewater surveillance page, which also measures COVID-19 in a community, he said. The page also features extensive county level information provided both by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As Roaring Fork Valley sanitation districts test wastewater for COVID-19, questions remain on interpreting the data

Consistent, widespread testing of the community’s wastewater for COVID-19 has been long-awaited as traditional public health metrics have struggled to fully capture the spread of the virus in the community’s transient population. Now, sanitation districts throughout the valley are participating in a state-sponsored tracking program, but local public health officials are grappling with interpreting the relative highs and lows, and how they compare to the picture captured by other metrics.

“Since April, we’ve seen a disconnect between our incidence rates, our positivity and our wastewater measurements,” Pitkin County epidemiologist Carly Senst told county commissioners July 26. “The wastewater is showing much higher prevalence than what we’re seeing come through.”

Wastewater testing can detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as people infected with COVID-19 can shed RNA — the genetic material from the virus — in their feces long before they show symptoms or get tested. This metric can help local public health departments better understand the spread of the virus in their communities, which has become more challenging with people increasingly using at-home tests, and especially in a tourism-oriented community such as Aspen where traditional metrics have often fallen short. Incidence rate, for example, counts cases among only county residents, who may comprise just a slice of the total daily population including workers and visitors. 

But wastewater data can be challenging for local public health departments to evaluate because it is a new and imperfect tool and has its share of shortcomings.

“We are still in the process of collecting data to determine if we can be more specific with the relationship between wastewater levels and our incidence rate,” Senst said.

A statewide window into wastewater 

Pitkin County has been sending wastewater samples to a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) lab in Denver since December, when the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District became the first wastewater treatment facility in the valley to participate in the state’s COVID-19 Wastewater Monitoring Project. The project, launched in August 2020, is a collaboration between Colorado State University and CDPHE. It now incorporates data from 55 wastewater utilities across the state, including Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt and Glenwood Springs. (Carbondale doesn’t participate in the state’s program but sends samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Besides knowing whether the virus is present, wastewater data has proven useful in informing public health departments quickly of when new variants are circulating in the community, according to Senst. The omicron subvariant BA.5 was first detected in the Snowmass’ sewage May 16, and it has since been found in Aspen’s wastewater since May 30, Glenwood Springs since June 6 and Basalt since July 11. 

This infographic from the CDC explains how the wastewater monitoring program works. Infographic courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
CDC_wastewater_infographic

A CDPHE courier comes twice a week to each of the four participating utilities in the valley to collect the samples and bring them to a lab in Denver. That lab then analyzes the samples and reports the data on the CDPHE wastewater dashboard typically within four business days from when the state lab receives the samples, according to state officials. Courier times can vary across the state, and analysis can take longer, which may result in reporting delays. 

Relative heights of peaks leave officials scratching their heads

This data shows that about 2.8 million copies of the virus were detected per liter at the Aspen treatment plant Jan. 6 — the highest detection level recorded at the Aspen facility since the monitoring program started. 

This coincides with the highest case counts recorded locally as COVID-19 spiked in Aspen with the omicron wave during late December and early January. According to CDPHE’s data, an average of 121 new cases per day (based on the three previous days) were reported in Aspen on Jan. 5 within the sanitation district’s boundaries, which extend roughly from the airport to Smuggler Mountain. This dropped slightly to 117 new cases on Jan. 6. Pitkin County’s seven-day incidence rate at the time was about 3,000 per 100,000 — the highest rate the county has ever recorded.                                    

Senst noted that Aspen has a relatively small community with a large transient population of tourists and the commuting workforce. “So spikes don’t always mean that there is a higher incidence rate among the community (although it could),” she wrote. “It could also mean that there was a large event that brought a lot of people into the Aspen area.”

Glenwood Springs also saw its highest case counts of the pandemic during the winter omicron surge, according to incidence-rate data based on new infections among the resident population. The number of daily cases spiked to its highest level in the sewershed — the community area served by a wastewater-collection system — with about 70-72 cases Jan. 5 and 6, based on the average of the three previous days. The number of virus copies in the Glenwood Springs wastewater system also climbed, to a high of 300,000 copies per liter — well short of the concentration experienced by Aspen during its concurrent peak. 

More recently, the sanitation district in Glenwood reached its record level, with 481,000 copies per liter July 28, while the number of reported new cases was low, hovering around a three-day average of 10 cases in mid-July. 

Although the late July number was the highest level of copies the county has seen since January, when Glenwood Springs started sending samples, Garfield County public health specialist Carrie Godes said she didn’t think they could accurately say what caused that spike. 

Garfield County epidemiologist Mason Hohstadt agreed with Senst that it’s still early in the process to draw any conclusions, but he also noticed a disconnect between the dropping number of reported positive tests and the recent spike in copies of virus in Glenwood Springs’ wastewater samples. 

Wastewater measurements are only a guiding tool to know where we’re standing with the virus. “We are using it as a way of being able to give people information at this point, especially going into the third year (of the pandemic),” Hohstadt said.

The four participating valley treatment plants all recorded high levels of virus copies about mid-July. Aspen and Snowmass recorded more than 1 million copies, Glenwood Springs was just shy of 500,000 copies, while Basalt spiked to 2.8 million copies per liter, or as much as Aspen during January’s omicron tsunami.

“We can’t always pin down why these types of peaks in the wastewater surveillance data occur, but the theory is that there was a higher level of disease burden during that ‘peak,’” Senst wrote in an email. “Was it from tourism or another source? We are not able to tell.”

Although an increase in COVID-19 presence in wastewater may not be surprising as more tourists are coming into town and variants such as BA.5, which allows reinfections, keep spreading, the data collection is still new and requires more time for local public health to make heads or tails. 

Since early this month, Glenwood Springs’ number of copies has ranged from about 20,000 to about 60,000. Aspen’s recent number of copies has varied between 301,000 and 386,000 so far this month, while between 242,000 and 305,000 copies have been detected in Snowmass Village’s sewershed.

In Basalt, a week after the 2.8 million peak in mid-July, wastewater data dropped to 371,000 copies on July 21.

Senst added that the data being collected now will help them better understand the peaks and valleys in future trends. “The more data we have, the better picture we are able to see,” she said.

The Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District recorded over 1 million copies of the virus per liter in mid July, but local public health officials are grappling with questions on what causes these spikes as they learn to interpret the new data. Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism
IMG_3522

Limitations of sampling the valley’s transient population

Wastewater measurement is only a snapshot of the presence of the virus in wastewater. One data point doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend, as does a seven-day incidence rate. 

The valley’s transient population remains an obstacle to determine disease burden on the community. When the lab publishes data after analyzing samples, a new wave of tourists may have already arrived and those who were in the valley the week before may have already left. 

CDPHE officials confirmed that tourism and other factors may impact single spikes in smaller communities. “For example, a special event or a tour bus depositing waste into the sewershed can impact a sample. We’ll get occasional spikes, and this is why we recommend looking at trends rather than single data points,” state officials said. 

Wastewater data is best used in combination with other metrics, including case numbers and incidence rate.

It is also worth noting that any residences or buildings with their own sewer system will not be recorded into the data, because wastewater measurements include only flow being processed through a participating municipal treatment facility.

Wastewater samples are not collected daily, the Pitkin County’s COVID-19 update said Aug. 2. CDPHE may sometimes face delays in sample collection or data reporting, which can affect the ability of local public health departments to interpret accurate information from the wastewater monitoring program. “It takes a few weeks for everything to be processed, and sometimes the ‘peak’ has already passed by the time we get the data,” Senst wrote.

Even though Aspen wastewater treatment was the first in the valley to be part of the state’s program, facility manager Nathan Nelson wishes it had happened before people were vaccinated and boosted. “By the time they actually started testing in Aspen, very few people seemed to care.”

A CDPHE courier comes twice a week to each of the four participating utilities in the valley to collect the samples and bring them to a lab in Denver, where samples are analyzed. Photo courtesy of Nathan Nelson/ACSD
nelson_sample-kit

A more burdensome process for smaller sanitation districts

Although the wastewater collection process hasn’t impacted the operations of larger sanitation districts such as Aspen or Glenwood Springs, the task has been more time consuming for smaller districts with limited personnel such as Basalt, which has been collecting samples since May.

If a facility has only one operator, that person may get busy and may not be present for the sample collection and has to cancel the pickup, resulting in no sample being sent to the lab. Smaller districts sometimes struggle to keep up with the sampling frequency and find entering information both on paper and online redundant and time consuming for staffers.

CDPHE officials said twice-a-week sampling is necessary to establish a trend and has always been a requirement of the program. The state is also working on modernizing their systems and transitioning to an online-only sample submission form. In the meantime, utilities still have to submit both a paper and an online form.

The testing process doesn’t cost anything to the districts, because it’s fully covered by CDPHE, which has received and budgeted approximately $9.4 million in federal funds to support COVID-19 wastewater surveillance testing from January 2021 through at least July 2023, state officials said.

CDPHE also shares its data with the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System. Colorado has been actively participating in the NWSS since January 2021, and the Carbondale Wastewater Department has been sending samples twice a week directly to the CDC since June 20. 

Garfield County Community Corrections workers to see COVID bonus pay

About two dozen employees at the Garfield County Community Corrections Center outside Rifle are due for a one-time pay bonus, using leftover COVID-19 relief funds.

But the 2-1 decision by the county commissioners Monday to use the restricted funds in that way didn’t come without some concerns around equity.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who voted against the bonus, noted that all county employees were impacted by the pandemic in some way, and said it could be seen as unfair that just one department gets a bonus.

The commissioners also just approved a 5% mid-year across-the-board pay raise for county workers, he noted. And that was on top of a 5% raise to start the year.

But the pot of money being tapped for the community corrections workers is designated for COVID-related purposes within the county’s criminal justice programs. 

If left unused, it must go back to the state, Community Corrections Administrator Rodney Hollandsworth said during the Monday Board of County Commissioners meeting.

The Community Corrections Center, which provides a work-release alternative to jail time for low-level, low-risk offenders, was hit with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks over the past two years.

That resulted in staffing shortages and extra stress on the staff, coupled with hiring challenges since that time, facility Supervisor Travis Horton said during the meeting.  

The remaining $113,000 can only be used for COVID impacts within the criminal justice programs, Hollandsworth said, and the recommendation was made to use it for the community corrections worker bonuses.

Commissioners Mike Samson and John Martin said they shared some of Jankovsky’s concerns, but approved the request since the money couldn’t be used elsewhere.

Free COVID-19 testing changes take effect in Garfield County

Free COVID-19 testing is now less available in Garfield County and limited to a single location in Carbondale, even as case numbers locally rise with spread of the latest subvariants of the virus.

As of Tuesday, the only place in the county to get a free PCR State Lab test, with results available in 24-36 hours, was at the testing site behind the Carbondale Recreation Center, 511 Colorado Ave., Garfield County Public Health Specialist Carrie Godes said in a news release.

Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Walk-ins or drive-ups are accepted, but appointments can be made at affinityecarecolorado.com.  

The final day for the free Roaring Fork COVID Testing sites throughout Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley was Friday. 

That service has been handed off to the for-profit Valley COVID lab, also at the Carbondale location, and requires a fee. The $120 PCR-type test offered by Valley COVID provides same-day results. Hours for that service are 8:30-11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, the county release states.

There are other options for testing besides the sites, Godes said.

Free, take-home rapid antigen tests are available on a walk-in basis at the county’s Rifle Public Health facility, 195 W. 14th St., although supplies are limited. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (closed for the noon hour), or call 970-625-5200 for more information.

Free rapid antigen tests can also be requested to be sent by mail through the federal at-home test program, the release states.  

“People can still go to their primary care provider for a test, but their pricing and requirements vary by provider,” Godes said.

For additional information on COVID-19 testing in Garfield County, visit garfield-county.com/public-health/covid-19-testing/

Reported positive cases of COVID-19 have been increasing in Garfield County and statewide in recent weeks, reaching a two-month peak of 22.4 cases per day in the county on June 28, according to Garfield County Public Health’s data webpage.

The county had 157 cases reported during the seven-day period from June 22-28, with one hospitalization reported this week and the first death attributed to COVID-19 since April. That occurred on June 10 and involved a male in his early 80s who was unvaccinated, Godes said. 

Garfield County has had 96 confirmed COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020.

Recent COVID-19 outbreaks are being monitored at four nursing homes across Garfield County, and another at a men’s addiction recovery residential group home in Carbondale.

“The best advice we can give is to get your booster shot if you are due for one,” Godes said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises adults age 18 and older receive an initial booster at least five months after the final dose of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Adults over age 50 and people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised are advised to receive a second booster at least four months after the first booster, according to CDC recommendations.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.

Mask mandates dropped on Roaring Fork Valley buses

Passengers on buses in the Roaring Fork Valley no longer need to wear a mask, agencies decided Tuesday.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, Ride Glenwood and Snowmass Village transportation department stopped enforcing the mask mandate for employees and passengers this week.

“Since the start of the pandemic RFTA’s goal has been to maintain essential transportation options while ensuring the safety of our customers, our employees, and our communities,” RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said in a prepared statement. “We are thankful for our staff members and loyal RFTA riders who have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 as they continued to make a difference in our community as essential workers taking essential trips using RFTA.”

Ride Glenwood buses no longer require masks for riders or drivers in alignment with federal Transportation Security Administration and RFTA policy, a Glenwood official said Tuesday.

“Per CDC guidance, the City of Glenwood Springs continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time,” Glenwood Springs public information officer Bryana Starbuck said in an email. “As a recipient of federal funding for our Ride Glenwood bus system, masking policy has always followed federal policy.”

Also, masks are no longer required on Snowmass Village Shuttle buses, and vehicles will be boarding to full capacity (including standing passengers) as of Tuesday, according to Snowmass Village Transportation Director David Peckler.

The abrupt reversal in mask requirements for public transportation came after a federal court in Florida ruled Monday that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to justify its decision and that the rulemaking procedures were flawed.

Federal agencies that oversee mass transit said after the ruling they would no longer enforce mask requirements on airplanes, trains, buses and shuttles. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport officials announced Tuesday they will no longer enforce facial coverings/masks in the terminal, effective immediately.

RFTA — the regional public bus operator — had required masks for the past two years.

“RFTA strongly encourages anyone who is not fully vaccinated, feeling ill, or who is immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable to use caution and consider facial coverings for their personal safety,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday morning. “RFTA recommends wearing upgraded masks such as N95s, KN95s, KF94s, etc., since they provide a higher level of protection. RFTA plans to continue making blue surgical masks available for the immediate future for boarding passengers.”

The agency said it would continue to work with local and state public health departments to ensure safety measures are followed, as needed.

RFTA will continue certain COVID-19 precautions such as using roof vents or windows to increase ventilation on buses, supplying hand sanitizer on all buses and “fogging” buses regularly to disinfect them. Barriers that separate drivers from passengers will remain in place.

Helping Roaring Fork Valley kids recover from two years of COVID

Amanda Petersen, program director for FocusedKids, helps preschool students understand how their brains work.
FocusedKids/courtesy photo

Remote learning, isolation, masks and rattled nerves have threatened to derail the academic performance of students in the Roaring Fork Valley over the past two years.

Two midvalley-based nonprofit organizations aim to help students and teachers reset and get back on track.

FocusedKids works in person with 500 elementary school students in 50 classrooms on a weekly basis with the goal of empowering kids to take control of their brains and improve their learning. Staffers with FocusedKids have witnessed the toll of the pandemic firsthand.

“Everybody is worn out,” said Kathy Hegberg, founder and executive director of FocusedKids. “There is nobody to turn to to talk to because everybody is worn out. Kids especially feel that way.”

While there is only limited research available so far on the setbacks the pandemic caused in academic achievement, it is clear from anecdotal information that the past two years have been rough.

“We have a (member) on our team that is a learning specialist for preschool,” Hegberg said. “She cannot believe what she’s seen. They’re calling it virtual autism. Kids are coming in that were born at the beginning of the pandemic and basically were cared for by a device so their parents could work at home or whatever was necessary. Their whole development has slowed.”

Kids are entering preschool and even kindergarten with undeveloped speaking skills, Hegberg said.

The learning obstacles extend throughout elementary school, according to Amanda Petersen, program director for FocusedKids. Veteran kindergarten and first-grade teachers have reported to her that they are struggling because they have so many students who don’t have the interest or skills to learn compared to pre-pandemic years.

Petersen said FocusedKids has expanded into fifth grade this year, and she has personally led sessions where she discusses with students what is going on in their brain. In one recent exercise, students were urged to list their worries on a small piece of paper that would be attached to a “worry rock.”

“It was really hard for them,” Petersen said. “They first of all didn’t want to write down all their worries because that would make them face their worries. One kid said, ‘I feel like all of my worries are staring me back in the face.’”

Others have commented to her that all their worries could not fit on the paper provided.

“With that many worries going on in your brain, how do you learn?” Hegberg asked.

The exercise is an opportunity to get at FocusedKids’ core mission — helping children understand their brain and putting it to good use in education and life. Petersen said kids learn why they cannot focus and why they are having trouble learning. In this particular exercise, they were given the option of tearing up their worry sheets and throwing them away as a sort of cleanse.

“Reaching the adults is the only way, I think, that kids are going to feel there is a safe place in the world again.” Kathy Hegberg, FocusedKids

The broader effort to channel students’ brainpower continues. FocusedKids provides a monthly professional development series for teachers. The series is a conduit to get to teachers information that otherwise would be hard to find. Teachers can discuss issues with one another and take information back to their classrooms.

A special virtual presentation sponsored by FocusedKids will complement that monthly series. On April 4, clinical psychologist Christine Runyan will explain the physiological effects of two years of the pandemic and social isolation.

Runyan is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Hegberg heard her speak in a podcast and sought her help in speaking to FocusedKids’ audience of teachers, parents and interested community members.

“Her whole talk was about normalizing what we’re all feeling,” Hegberg said. “Basically what she said was our bodies are beautifully built to manage stress and recover from stress, but they are not built to be under stress for two years in a row without relief.”

The local presentation will be online from 4:30-5:30 p.m. April 4. There is no cost, but participants must register at focusedkids.org/classes-workshops.

“Kids missed two years of social development, two years of academic development,” Hegberg said. “How do we get the adults in their lives back on track so they have someone to rely on, with the tools they need to recover?

“Kids mirror back whatever behavior they are being surrounded by,” she continued. “Reaching the adults is the only way, I think, that kids are going to feel there is a safe place in the world again.”

Meanwhile, another midvalley-based nonprofit is cranking up efforts to do what it does best. Summit54 has teamed with the Roaring Fork School District for 10 years to offer Summer Advantage, a free academic and life enrichment program for all elementary school-aged children in the Re-1 school district.

“The program is more important than ever, because there were learning losses when kids weren’t in school,” Summit54 founder and executive director Terri Caine said.

She credits the Roaring Fork School District for getting kids back in classrooms quicker than many schools. Nevertheless, the various distractions caused by the pandemic took their toll on learning.

Between 525 and 550 students typically sign up for Summer Advantage. The program is provided at the Basalt, Glenwood and Crystal River elementary schools. The school district provides transportation to the sites, and kids receive breakfast and lunch.

The Summer Advantage program includes a session after breakfast with FocusedKids that features brain exercises to reduce stress and prepares students to learn before they dive into two hours of literacy, one of math and other endeavors.

There are more than 70 educators and an educator-to-student ratio of no more than 1:11.

Caine said she is alerting returning families that the registration date is earlier this year on May 13. Student registration is available online at www.Summeradvantage.org in both Spanish and English. Registration is also available via phone: 1-866-924-7226 (*9 for Spanish).

“Over our 10-year history, participants gain an average of 2.5 months in reading and math skills during the five-week Summer Advantage program while having a blast,” the program materials said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Lifted mask mandate won’t excuse Aspen hospital, airport, buses

Although the indoor mask mandate will end on Feb. 22, some businesses will continue enforcing the mandate. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Tuesday can’t come soon enough for those over and done with Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate, but a few places will still require people to wear face-coverings for admission.

Among them are Aspen’s airport and hospital and the local public buses, all of which will continue to acknowledge state and federal guidelines regarding mask-wearing.

“Although the mask mandate may be lifted for Pitkin County, for the hospital itself, which still has to follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the state guidelines, that mask mandate will not be lifted,” said Elaine Gerson, AVH’s chief operating officer, at the hospital’s monthly board meeting held Monday. “Masks will continue to be required if you are coming to the hospital for any services whatsoever.”

Varying mask mandates and guidelines for health care providers and facilities have come from both state and federal agencies, and those rules supersede orders at the local level.

In its Feb. 2 interim COVID-19 guidelines for health care personnel, the CDC said that “source control and physical distancing (when physical distancing is feasible and will not interfere with provision of care) are recommended for everyone in a health care setting.“

Source control is a reference to respirators, face masks and cloth masks.

The Colorado Board of Health’s rule requiring 100% vaccination rates for licensed health care facilities by Oct. 31, which has been in effect since Aug. 30, also remains in force.

As well, AVH will continue to adhere to the vaccination mandate by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is the federal agency that establishes health and safety regulations for health care providers and suppliers that are Medicare- and Medicaid-certified.

“We are governed by federal rules and regulations because we accept Medicare as a payer source,” Gerson said.

In November, CMS posted its IFC, which stands for Interim Final Rule with Comment Period, regarding vaccinations for health care settings.

“We believe that the COVID-19 vaccine requirements in this IFC will result in nearly all health care workers being vaccinated, thereby benefiting all individuals in health care settings,” said the IFC. “This will greatly contribute to a reduction in the spread of and resulting morbidity and mortality from the disease, positive steps towards health equity, and an improvement in the numbers of health care staff who are healthy and able to perform their professional responsibilities.”

Both the CMS’s mandate as well as one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mandate, which had required vaccination and COVID-19 tests for employers with at least 100 workers, met legal challenges that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed in January. The high court upheld the CMS mandate through a 5-4 decision, but ruled 6-3 that OSHA exceeded its authority and blocked its vaccination and testing requirements.

AVH also will continue to conduct COVID-19 screenings (temperature check and COVID symptom questions) for people who enter the facility.

“We don’t expect the screening guidelines will end anytime soon,” Gerson said.

People at least 2 years of age still are required by federal law to wear masks on public transportation — including planes, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, trains and other modes to get around. Transportation hubs also require masks under orders adopted by the Transportation Security Administration.

“Face coverings are mandatory in the Aspen Airport per TSA Executive Order,” according to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s website.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate could be history by Presidents Day Weekend

on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County Public Health staff will recommend that members of the Board of Health drop all local COVID-19-related restrictions including the indoor mask mandate when they meet Thursday.

That was the word Tuesday from Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, who told county commissioners that the end of local COVID-19 requirements could come as soon as Feb. 18, the beginning of Presidents Day Weekend.

“We will actually have a pretty significant policy recommendation coming forward … to sunset the existing public health order,” Peacock said. “Sunset means a lot of the requirements in the public health order … will revert from requirements back to recommendations.”

Eliminating the indoor mask requirement for children in school and in child care facilities will be part of the recommendation. Public health officials have been coordinating the recommendation with local schools officials, who have said they need a bit of time to adjust their operations before the unmasking, Peacock said.

Aspen Superintendent David Baugh will speak at Thursday’s Board of Health meeting, Peacock said.

The decision to recommend dropping all Pitkin County COVID-19-related requirements comes after conversations between local public health officials and their counterparts with the state public health department. High local levels of immunity and vaccination, the declining though still high incidence rate and the return of Aspen Valley Hospital to mostly comfortable operating status played parts in the recommendation, Peacock said.

Public Health Director Jordana Sabella also cited state public health officials’ recent estimation that 80% of Colorado’s population is likely immune to the omicron variant at this point and newly achieved same day turnaround for local COVID-19 testing results at community testing centers as further reasons to eliminate restrictions as other reasons.

“There’s a lot of immunity in the community,” she said.

Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate for schools and child care facilities was put in place by the Board of Health in August, while the general communitywide mandate began about a month later in September. The metrics for those restrictions and others were set during the delta variant wave.

“Things have changed,” Sabella said. “We want to follow the science and the data.”

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who also serves as chairman of the Board of Health, said part of the reasoning behind the recommendation is that other surrounding communities and counties have eliminated restrictions.

Besides the indoor mask mandates, the other restrictions that will come to an end if Board of Health members vote to end the restrictions include mandatory safety plans for events with more than 50 people and dissemination of the traveler responsibility code by lodging facilities to prospective visitors, she said.

Isolation and quarantine measures for those who test positive, however, will not change, Sabella said. Public health will use the same means to try and control transmission, she said.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who has children not yet old enough to be vaccinated, said she thought the indoor mask mandate would be eliminated further down the road. She said a parent group she hears from would prefer to keep masks for kids in schools.

Commissioner Francie Jacober, on the other hand, said she’s spoken to visitors who scoff at the mask mandate from a community with a high incidence rate.

“People are concerned the mask mandate hasn’t done anything to control (transmission),” she said.

Pitkin County’s COVID-19 incidence rate stood at 452 per 100,000 people for the seven-day period ending Monday, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboard. The county logged 78 new cases of the virus among county residents in the week before.

The Board of Health will meet virtually at 1 p.m. Thursday. Public comment is set to be taken around 1:55 p.m., Poschman said Tuesday. Go to PitkinCounty.com and click on “meeting agendas” for information on how to tune in to Thursday’s meeting.

 

Eagle County formally ends legal action against Basalt school over mask mandate

Eagle County government filed a motion Monday to dismiss its legal action against Cornerstone Christian School over a mask mandate and other health issues.

The county in December filed a complaint and request for a preliminary injunction to require students and staff at the school to wear masks during hours of operation. However, the county commissioners voted as the county Board of Health on Jan. 14 to let the mask mandate expire on Jan. 17 for high schools and Jan. 21 for younger grades.

“Accordingly, given that the mask-mandate at the center of this case has now been lifted by Plaintiffs, and because Defendant has agreed to comply with state reporting and licensing requirements in the future, the issues set forth in Plaintiff’s complaint have become moot,” the county’s new motion said.

Cornerstone Christian School is located in the Roaring Fork Valley between Basalt and El Jebel. Pastor Jim Tarr, executive director of the school, told county officials on multiple occasions the school’s position is that the decision on masks should be up to parents. The county disagreed and said a mask mandate required in the public health order required compliance by all public and private schools.

The initial complaint also alleged that Cornerstone was violating Colorado law by not reporting COVID-19 test results at the school to the county. The school has agreed to share test results.

Eagle County Bryan Treu issued a statement Monday regarding the notice of dismissal.

“This dismissal was not based on any arguments or defenses raised by Cornerstone,” he said. “Rather, it was based on the school mask mandate being lifted by our public health director, Cornerstone’s asserted commitments to adhere to state requirements for COVID-19 case reporting, and inspections at the child care center. As a result, we know feel this matter is moot. We are hopeful that continued compliance efforts and disease trends make further action on our part unnecessary, but we remain ready to bring necessary enforcement actions in the future to keep our community safe.”

scondon@aspentimes.com