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No sign yet of a COVID-19 surge in Aspen

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times

Aspen restaurants and lodging have been open for more than two weeks on a limited basis and, so far, there’s no sign of a surge in cases, a local hospital official said Thursday.

“We remain comfortable in all categories,” said Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dave Ressler. “(But) we’re watching closely because there’s so much activity (in town).”

The hospital has conducted 554 tests since the outbreak started, with just 27 of them coming up positive, he said. That translates to a 5% infection rate in Pitkin County, he said.

There have been a total of 62 positive COVID-19 cases and two deaths in Pitkin County since the outbreak began, according to county statistics. During the early days of the outbreak, testing was not being done at AVH.

The last positive case turned up Tuesday, though that person was sent home and not admitted to the hospital, said Lori Maloy, AVH chief clinical officer. The hospital hasn’t admitted anyone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 for 18 days, she said.

AVH is seeing an average of two people with COVID-like symptoms per day in the emergency room, between three and four people a day at the respiratory evaluation center and is performing an average of six tests a day, Ressler said.

The hospital now has the ability to use rapid COVID-19 testing through its own laboratory, which cuts the wait time for results to just 45 minutes, he said.

In particular, the facility has seen a lot of people with allergies lately, which has led to an uptick in negative COVID tests, he said. However, he cautioned people who test negative to remain vigilant because the tests still have a 25-30% false negative rate.

If those emergency room numbers eventually increase to seven or eight possible patients per day, the hospital would likely move into a more cautious phase because capacity could begin to be threatened, Ressler said.

Hospital and Pitkin County Public Health officials want anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to consult with their primary care physician, who will refer them for testing at the AVH respiratory evaluation center if need be. Those without a primary care doctor can call the hospital at 970-279-4111 for a testing referral. Patients who cannot afford a test will not have to pay.

While businesses, restaurants and hotels are now open on a limited basis, Pitkin County’s unemployment rate remains at more than 20%, said Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of health and human services.

That is prompting public health officials to begin planning for the near future when the federal government’s additional stimulus unemployment benefits run out, she said. The county plans to look at economic forecasts and will begin looking at programs that build new job skills for local workers, Sundeen said.

The economic devastation in the county has been notable.

Federal food assistance applications have risen from 180 cases in 2019 to 293 in April. The monthly total issuance of those benefits rose from $30,000 in March to $90,000 in April, she said.

In addition, 1,963 people received food from distribution centers in the Upper Roaring Fork Valley between April 20 and May 2, with more than 1,800 people utilizing the free food distribution throughout May, according to statistics presented Thursday.

The county also has provided more than $2.2 million in emergency cash assistance for food and rent to 2,821 people in Pitkin County, said Chad Federwitz, the county’s senior services manager. Nearly 65% of that aid went to Aspen residents, with about 19% going to Snowmass Village residents and 9.5% to Basalt residents, he said.

The area’s homeless population also has been taken care of, Sundeen said.

Some of that population was able to shelter overnight at the Health and Human Services Building across from AVH though March and the beginning of April, Sundeen said. Aspen’s winter homeless shelter shut down at the beginning of the pandemic on orders from the archdiocese, she said.

After early April, however, many stopped coming to the overnight shelter and the county —with the assistance of the Aspen Skiing Co. and municipalities — set up a camp for the homeless at the Intercept Lot, Sundeen said.

The county hired a camp host to supervise the area, which is equipped with bathrooms, hand-wash stations and bear-proof food lockers. About 17 people are now staying at the camp, she said.

“It’s working really well,” Sundeen said, noting that it is being kept clean and those staying there are observing proper social distancing protocols and temperature checks.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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