Coronavirus updates: Eagle County leads Colorado with 11 cases, public health order limits event sizes

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Infection Control's Amy Carter, left, and respiratory therapist Kim Thompson perform a real-time test for coronavirus on patients with appointments outside of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department's Aspen Village Location on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via AP

After the confirmation of seven new presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Eagle County on Thursday, Eagle County Public Health issued a public health order imposing restrictions on social gatherings. The order applies to gatherings of 50 people or more and will stay in effect until at least April 8.

Eagle County, with 11 coronavirus patients, now leads the state in cases to date. There are 49 cases statewide, including one indeterminate case that public health is treating as a presumptive positive. The state lab has completed test results on more than 400 people in Colorado since testing started on Feb. 28.

Scott Bookman, an incident commander with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a media call Thursday that Eagle County is the only county in the High Country with evidence of community transmission.

Community transmission or spread means people “have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We believe that there is evidence that there is community transmission in Eagle County,” Bookman said. “We do not have evidence that there is community transmission in other counties.”

The seven new Eagle County patients were identified as three males and four women. One of the men is in his 20s, one in his 50s and one in his 80s. Three of the women are in their 30s, and one is in her 60s.

Hotels on high alert

One of the Eagle County cases is an employee of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Vail.

Dan Johnson, the general manager of the resort hotel, said in a statement Thursday that the employee was last on the property on March 5.

“Based on risk assessment guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in light of what we know at this time, guest risk is considered low at this time, due to the individual’s role in the hotel that has little-to-no prolonged interaction with guests,” Johnson said. “Eagle County Public Health has not advised details on how, where and when this individual was infected with the virus. At this time, we do not have any confirmed cases reported among other hotel colleagues or recent or current guests.”

Johnson said the hotel, to ensure the safety and well-being of its staff and guests, activated enhanced cleaning measures and operational protocols, including initiating high-touch cleaning measures on things like elevator buttons, doorknobs and places such as restaurants, meeting spaces and guest rooms. Further, out of an abundance of caution, the hotel is engaging a third-party cleaning provider to conduct a deep cleaning across high-traffic areas and will be implementing temperature checks among colleagues.

Lifts still turning

Vail Resorts confirmed Thursday that there are no current plans to close ski areas, despite Gov. Jared Polis announcing Wednesday night that the spread of the virus had impacted Colorado’s ski country disproportionally.

On Monday, in a call to investors, Rob Katz said the company already had started to see declines, and that was before there was evidence of community spread of the virus in Eagle County.

“At the moment we are not at all changing any of our operating schedules, we plan to keep all of our resorts open,” Katz said Monday. “We do not expect any change whatsoever in the experience that we want to provide to our guests, and we’ll be doing that, but certainly as we looked over the last week, following the previous week’s turbulence with the coronavirus, we started to see declines.”

A Vail Resorts spokesman said late Thursday, however, that the company is working closely with state and county officials where it operates its resorts and is constantly evaluating plans as new information comes forward.

Polis, in his address to the state, advised older travelers to avoid mountain resort communities.

At-risk populations are chief concern

People 60 and older and people with underlying health conditions should consider staying away from large groups of people where they would be in close contact with others and where exposure to coronavirus is more likely and harder to control. These include social events, concert and theater venues, conferences and other events where it is impossible to maintain physical space between yourself and others. People at higher risk for severe disease should talk to their medical providers for additional guidance that might be more specific to their medical needs.

Fire board files disaster declaration

Also on Thursday, the Eagle River Fire board of directors signed a local disaster emergency declaration due to the number of COVID-19 cases in Eagle County. The declaration follows similar declarations from both Eagle County and the state, and opens up opportunities for funding and resources to assist in response and recovery.

The declaration, filed with both Eagle County and the state, will be in effect until March 19, unless extended by an action of the ERFPD board. Filing of a declaration is a typical step in the emergency management process, and provides access to resources, as well as greater legal and financial flexibility.

Additionally, all ERFPD stations will be closed to the public, and appearances at public events have been postponed.

Even the jail is on lockdown

The Eagle County jail took an “aggressive step” and closed down both its work release and volunteer programs in the outbreak’s wake.

“I do not take this measure without great consideration,” Eagle County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Van Wyk said in making the announcement. “However, I feel this is the best approach to attempt to insulate our facility from the potential spread of COVID-19 through the inmate population and jail staff.”

Suspending the work release program means inmates will not be able to leave the jail to work outside jobs.

“It is not without recognition that there will be unintended consequences and personal loss caused by this decision; however, I have to consider the larger inmate population and their health and wellbeing,” Van Wyk said.

Guidance for schools

Eagle County Public Health is not currently recommending closing schools. School officials have been in close contact with ECPHE to discuss plans and procedures that help promote a healthy school environment for children, youth and adults. There are many reasons why schools are viewed differently than the large public gatherings outlined above:

Children and youth have not been shown to be a high-risk group for serious illness from this virus.

Protocols for increased cleaning within schools, as well as monitoring of illness, and procedures for when to exclude children and youth are already in place.

When some schools briefly closed during the H1N1 influenza pandemic, we learned that many children still gathered in group settings elsewhere in environments without the controls outlined above.

As many as 40% of children and youth at Eagle County Schools qualify for free and reduced lunch. If schools were closed, a key source of daily nutrition for many families would be cut off.

School closures would also have a significant impact on the local workforce. Although this would impact all employers, reducing the availability of medical staff is of great concern and would be counter to what our community needs right now.

As much as possible, children should be allowed to carry on with their education and normal activities.

Some children have underlying health conditions, such as weakened immune systems, that put them at higher risk. Caregivers of children with underlying health conditions should consult with health care providers about whether their children should stay home.

“We understand the impact of this guidance on our residents, our businesses, and our communities,” said Heath Harmon, Eagle County Public Health and Environment director. “We don’t take these decisions lightly. We know how this disease spreads in the community and what preventive measures can help slow it down and help prevent exposures to people at greatest risk.”

Mountain Recreation closes facilities

Effective March 13, Mountain Recreation will close its three facilities — the Gypsum Recreation Center, the Eagle Pool and Ice Rink and the Edwards Fieldhouse — “until it’s is appropriate to reopen.”

Mountain Rec has also canceled scheduled programs until further notice.

“We are in full support and compliance of Eagle County’s standing public health order related to suspending events and gatherings,” said Janet Bartnik, executive director of Mountain Recreation. “We are closing to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. If we can do our part to delay the spread by keeping people away from each other, we have a chance to help more people effectively and not overwhelm hospitals and infrastructure.

“We are all a part of the health system and in order to reduce the speed of transmission our staff feels it’s appropriate to suspend our program and facility operations,” Bartnik added.

County, Vail Health being proactive

In January, Eagle County established a communitywide COVID-19-specific task force that began meeting weekly to plan and prepare for the arrival of the virus in the community. On March 1, the task force began meeting daily.

Internally, within the Vail Health system, which includes Colorado Mountain Medical, a task force was created in January to further plan and prepare for COVID-19 with the guiding principles of the safety and wellness of the staff, the safety of and service to patients, and maintaining daily operations, including emergency services. The internal task force includes two epidemiologists.

The county and health care providers began taking a proactive approach to testing for COVID-19 to help with early tracking and controlling throughout the community. As of March 11, there have been more than 75 individuals tested for COVID-19.

On March 6, prior to the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in Eagle County, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical established the first dedicated screening and testing facility in Colorado. The drive-up facility is by appointment only and serves all primary care providers in the Eagle River Valley.

On that same date, in an effort to proactively protect staff and patients, Vail Health Hospital began pre-screening patients and visitors for symptoms of COVID-19. On March 11, a visitor policy was implemented to reduce the amount of foot traffic through the facility.

On March 11, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical established a designated respiratory clinic at Vail Urgent Care, which focuses on non-emergency patients with respiratory symptoms. The clinic, which is open during the same operating hours of the seven-day-a-week urgent care, is by appointment through primary care physicians. To schedule an appointment, call 970-926-6340.

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