COVID-19 test results for 10 Aussies in Aspen pending until likely Wednesday

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
A Centers for Disease Control illustration of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Test results from a group of Australians quarantined in Aspen for possible exposure to the COVID-19 virus probably won’t be available until Wednesday, an official said Tuesday.

The number of individuals possibly infected was reported at 13 earlier this week, but Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann told Aspen City Council on Tuesday that it’s now 10.

Aspen Ambulance Director Gabe Muething confirmed the number has changed, and the initial report given by state officials to the local incident command team was 13.

Samples from the 10 people, who were traveling as a group, were driven to Denver on Monday night and likely were not tested until Tuesday morning, said Alex Burchetta, chief deputy of operations at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

The results of those tests won’t be known for 24 to 48 hours, so they likely won’t be disseminated until Wednesday, he said. And while results might become available Tuesday, the time frame being provided to local officials indicates that is unlikely, Burchetta said.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment official confirmed Tuesday that the tests from the group of Australians are “in process,” though she said the department doesn’t know when the results will be available.

“We will only report the number of positive cases,” said Vanessa Bernal. “Thank you for your understanding as we are responding to this rapidly changing situation.”

The group was exposed to the COVID-19 virus by a member of their travel group, who tested positive for the virus when she returned home to Australia, according to a CDPHE news release Sunday. The 10, who are all Australian, are being quarantined in Aspen.

Eighteen total people were in the Australian group, though five did not exhibit symptoms, are not under quarantine and have not been tested, officials have said.

Burchetta said that once CDPHE knows the results of the tests, they will notify Pitkin County and Aspen officials. Within 60 minutes of that notification, CDPHE will issue a news release with the results, he said.

Local officials, however, want to release the results, so the information will be provided to local media soon after the state makes the notification, Burchetta said.

“We are doing our best to provide as much information as we can,” he said.

Local officials have said they don’t know where the 21-year-old Australian woman went in the Aspen area, what airline she flew or any other details of her stay in town. They have also not released the exact dates she and her group were in town visiting.

Burchetta stressed that neither local officials nor CDPHE investigators yet know where exactly the Australian woman who tested positive went in Aspen.

City Councilwoman Rachel Richards expressed concern as to why officials do not know where the group has been and cannot track their whereabouts in Aspen through paper trails like restaurant reservations and ski-lift ticket purchases.

Koenemann said during Tuesday’s council meeting that it takes time for “contact tracing” on the individuals, and state and local officials have been working as diligently as possible in the last 48 hours.

“I understand that is a burning question,” she said.

Koenemann also noted that the incident command team requested a CDPHE representative come to Aspen, but it was only at the sheriff’s office’s urging that one was expected to arrive Tuesday night.

Bernal, the CDPHE spokeswoman, confirmed that the Aspen contact investigation is ongoing.

If any of the people test positive for the virus, they will likely be treated and continue to be isolated where they are currently staying, Burchetta said, noting that 80 percent of COVID-19 cases are mild. Those with complications will be treated appropriately, though he declined to say whether they will be admitted to Aspen Valley Hospital.

Burchetta said he did not know of any other people in Aspen or Pitkin County who have surfaced with symptoms that require testing.

Aspen hospital says it is ready

Aspen Valley Hospital officials assured hospital board members and the community at a board meeting Monday that the facility is prepared for what could be a lengthy battle with COVID-19.

“This isn’t going to go away tomorrow,” said Chief Clinical Officer Lori Maloy, adding the hospital is expecting to see cases from the Roaring Fork Valley. “It will probably be around for the next few months.”

Anyone who thinks they might have the COVID-19 virus should call their regular doctor first for a phone screening, according to AVH’s website. If they feel they must report to the emergency room, they need to call the hospital first so doctors and nurses can prepare for their arrival, Maloy said. The emergency room number is 970-544-7343.

In addition, the hospital announced in a news release Tuesday that new entrance procedures will be instated at the hospital beginning Wednesday morning. All patients, visitors, volunteers and vendors must enter through the hospital’s east entrance, where they will be asked screening questions prior to being allowed entry.

The emergency room department will implement night procedures 24 hours a day, meaning that patients who arrive must call a phone number and be screened first by an ER nurse before entry, according to the release. The emergency room will be the only entrance point to the hospital after 5 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends.

“Aspen Valley Hospital will be limiting hospital access to only patients and their visitors, and not allowing access for other persons who do not have a healthcare-related reason to be at the hospital,” the release states. “While ongoing classes are still running as planned, all participants will be screened prior to entering those classes.”

The Snowmass Clinic in Snowmass Village and the After-Hours Medical Care clinic in Basalt also will begin phone-screening procedures before allowing patients entry, the release states.

AVH has about 400 protective masks on hand, as well as an ozone machine that can sterilize the masks and allow the hospital to use each one 10 times, Maloy said at Monday’s board meeting.

“We don’t really fear the coronavirus,” Maloy said. “We do feel well-prepared to care for our staff, our existing patients and those that might come in.”

Pitkin County’s incident command team includes Koenemann, Muething and Burchetta. The team also includes personnel from healthcare and emergency services throughout the valley.

Staff writer Carolyn Sackariason contributed to this report.

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