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UPDATE: Latest Garfield County COVID-19 statistics and risk level

Latest Garfield County COVID-19 statistics and risk level

AS OF TUESDAY, JUNE 22

Cumulative cases: 6,200 (+5 since last update)

Deaths since outbreak began: 43 confirmed

Current Risk Level: Yellow-Concern

Recent 7-day case totals: June 16-22 – 47; June 9-15 – 51; June 2-8 – 48

Two-week daily case average: 7.00

Single-day high: 101 on 12/10/20

7-day incidence rate: 99.2 per 100,000 people

7-day test positivity rate: 7.4% (14-day: 6.1%)

7-day hospitalization rate: 9%

Vaccines administered (as of 6/17): 54,517 (30,065 first doses; 24,452 second doses; 52% of eligible population fully vaccinated; 60% have first dose)

Source: Garfield County Public Health

HOSPITAL STATS

Valley View Hospital, as of 6/22/2021

Specimens collected through Valley View Hospital: 28,242 (+853 since 6/1)

Positive results: 2,183 (+20 since 6/1)

Hospitalizations since outbreak began: 275 (2 new since 6/15)

Grand River Hospital, as of 6/22/2021

Specimens collected through Grand River Health: 8,614 (+88 since 6/15)

Positive results: 1,365 (+35 since 6/15)

Hospitalizations since outbreak began: 54 (0 new since 6/15)

Source: Hospital statistics released weekly on Tuesday

ACTIVE OUTBREAKS IN GARFIELD COUNTY

(Updated 6/16)

AeroCare Holdings Inc., Silt: Date determined, 5/5; 4 staff cases.

Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home, Rifle: Date new outbreak determined, 4/9; 5 resident, 7 staff cases.

FedEx Ground, Glenwood Springs: Date determined, 6/16; 7 staff cases.

Garfield County Detention Center, Glenwood Springs: Date determined, 4/7; 21 inmates, 14 staff cases

Heritage Park Care Center, Carbondale: Date determined, 5/20; 5 resident, 6 staff cases.

New Creation Preschool, New Castle: Date determined, 5/28; 4 staff, 4 attendee cases.

Renew Roaring Fork, Glenwood Springs: Date determined, 6/10; 2 resident, 3 staff cases.

Source: Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment Covid-19 outbreak data page

Garfield County sees increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, new variant cases

Garfield County Public Health says it is seeing a sharp rise in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 cases in the area, and has recently confirmed more cases of the newly renamed “Delta” variant locally.

“This is a reminder that the virus is not gone, and not everyone reacts to the virus the same way,” a Wednesday release from Public Health states. “Some people are at much greater risk of severe illness.”

According to the most recent countywide statistics, of the 49 new COVID-19 cases confirmed between June 4-10, 15% required hospitalization. As recently as June 1, the local hospitalization rate was 4%.

Not all of those patients are in county hospitals, however. Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs reported Wednesday that it has admitted three patients with COVID-19 since the first of the month.

Grand River Health in Rifle has not admitted any new COVID-19 patients in the past week, but did transfer four patients to other hospitals on Monday, including one to Denver, Grand River spokeswoman Annick Pruett said.

“We would not represent the changes in our COVID-19 hospitalizations as significant or dramatic,” Valley View spokeswoman Stacey Gavrell said. “Our capacity to care for patients, COVID or otherwise, remains strong.

“COVID is still negatively impacting our community by causing mild, moderate and severe infections,” she added. “The numbers are manageable, but it has not gone away.”

Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said her department follows cases of hospitalized county residents, no matter where they are hospitalized.

“This number can fluctuate as patients are discharged but have remained stable as we have some cases that are being treated outside of the county with severe symptoms,” Long said in a Thursday email, adding her staff is currently following five hospitalized cases.

Despite the increase in hospitalizations, Garfield County’s incidence and test positivity rates remain stable, even as people are getting out and about more. As of Thursday, the incidence rate was 78.1 per 100,000 people, and the test positivity rate had dropped to 3.7%.

COVID-19 vaccination rates for the county are 57.4% for patients with at least one dose, with 48.7% fully vaccinated, according to the county release.

There have been 49 new cases over the last seven-day period. Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been 40 recorded deaths from COVID-19 in Garfield County, including one new death within the past month.

County sees more ‘Delta’ variant cases

Meanwhile, county health officials reported Thursday that there have been six new confirmed cases of the Delta COVID-19 variant within Garfield County over the past three weeks.

“Not all positive cases are sequenced for variants, meaning the actual number of infections is much higher,” a Thursday news release stated.

The World Health Organization has listed the Delta variant, which originated in India, as a “variant of concern,” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is classifying Delta as a “variant of interest.”

“The Delta variant has been found to be more contagious, particularly among youth ages 12 to 20,” the release states.

According to Garfield Public Health, anyone in Garfield County now testing positive for the COVID-19 virus likely has a variant strain of the disease.

“Areas of Colorado with lower vaccination rates are more likely to be impacted by the spread of the variants,” the release states. “Garfield County Public Health reminds the public to maintain health precautions, especially if you are unvaccinated.”

For vaccine clinic information, visit the Garfield County Public Health website or Facebook page.

RFTA buses going for the full ride starting June 7

Passengers wait to load onto the RFTA bus in the evening on Aug. 12. Capacity has been limited to 50% since last November. RFTA will return to full capacity June 7. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will transition to full seating capacity on all routes starting Monday, including on the popular Maroon Bells shuttles.

RFTA has operated at capacity limits since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020. Since Nov. 2 it has operated at 50 percent capacity.

“Due to the decline in the COVID-19 infection rate, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Transportation have rescinded all social distancing restrictions on public transit within Colorado,” RFTA said in a news release. “Pitkin County Public Health has also given RFTA clearance for this increase.”

The decision has major implications for the experience at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. Last year, individual shuttles could handle only 15 passengers per bus for a total of 435 passengers heading up per day. This year, the shuttles can accommodate 35 passengers for each of the 29 scheduled departures from the Aspen Highlands staging area. That boosts the daily total to 1,015 people per day. Shuttle reservations can be made AspenChamber.org.

Even with the easing of capacity limits, RFTA still will keep rules in place to keep people safe from COVID-19.

First, no buses will fill to the point beyond seating capacity. If there are 36 seats, only 36 passengers will be allowed to board. “Riders are permitted to stand, but the total number of riders aboard the bus may not exceed the number of seats on the bus,” RFTA said.

Second, federal law requires that masks be worn on public transit through Sept. 13. Bandannas, ski buffs and scarves do not qualify as acceptable face coverings.

Third, people who are sick and suspect they were exposed to COVID-19 should not ride a bus.

Fourth, guidance from bus drivers must be followed, because they are responsible for the health and safety of their passengers.

Limited capacity has taken a toll on RFTA’s ridership. Through February this year, the latest statistic available, RFTA hauled 548,139 riders this year compared to 1,169,797 at the same point in 2020. That’s a decrease of 53 percent.

Metro Denver counties to lift remaining COVID-19 restrictions with move to Level Clear this weekend

A lone traveler wears a face covering while hurrying through a near-empty check-in counter area in the main terminal of Denver International Airport on Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

Much of metro Denver will see all remaining county-level COVID-19 public health restrictions lifted this weekend, although people still will be required to wear masks in specific indoor settings as the statewide order remains in place at least until next month.

Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder and Broomfield counties confirmed Tuesday they will move from Level Blue to a new phase called Level Clear on Sunday.

Denver’s public health agency stopped short of committing to the move to Level Clear, but said the city anticipates “aligning” with neighboring counties.

Once the metro counties move to Level Clear, restaurants, bars, offices and other indoor settings can operate at 100% capacity with no additional requirements, according to the Tri-County Health Department’s public health order.

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment “is working with regional and state partners to evaluate the potential restrictions after the expirations of our current public health order,” spokesperson Clarissa Boggs-Blake said in an email Tuesday. “We anticipate aligning with other neighboring jurisdictions as well as adopting by reference any remaining state public health order requirements.”

For more on this story, go to denverpost.com.

COVID-19 vaccination insurance billing varies by local provider

Parachute resident Chris Hiller sits in a waiting room after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination in Rifle on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Are you getting or have you already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine? Your insurance might be billed.

Or it might not.

While the cost of the vaccine itself was covered by the federal government in its mass purchase of vaccines aimed at getting a control on the pandemic, the cost to actually put the shot in people’s arms was not.

That has meant that either Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance companies are being billed to help cover that cost, for those who have it, as in the case of Grand River Health in Rifle, which operates as a public taxing district.

In other instances locally, the vaccine provider is absorbing those costs, as Garfield County Public Health, as well as Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, a private not-for-profit organization, chose to do.

“Vaccines will continue to be administered at no charge,” Valley View Community Relations Officer Stacey Gavrell said. “We have not charged anyone — first or second dose — since we started these clinics in December.”

She further explained, “We view this as a service to the community,” adding, “As we were preparing for the COVID vaccines this summer (2020), we knew that removing as many barriers as possible would be key to vaccinating as many people as possible.”

Though the individual should never have to pay to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, just the act of billing someone’s insurance to cover the administration costs can create a barrier for people to get vaccinated, Gavrell said.

That could be rooted in the belief that an individual’s insurance rates may eventually go up to cover those costs, which is certainly a possibility as the ongoing costs of the pandemic mount.

From a functional standpoint at the vaccination clinics themselves, though, it’s just one less thing to have to factor in to make the process as smooth as possible, Gavrell said.

“To those getting vaccinated, it would be another process that would affect logistics of hosting the hospital clinics,” she said.

Valley View has administered more than half of the vaccines in Garfield County to date.

The remainder have been administered by Grand River Health, as the second largest provider in the county, as well as by Mountain Family Health Centers, Garfield Public Health, Voces Unidas, a handful of smaller medical clinics and private pharmacies, such as those at City Markets stores and Walgreens Drug stores.

Insurance billing practices have varied between those providers.

Grand River, as a public entity, chose to bill insurance for those with Medicare and Medicaid in particular — and for those with private insurance who were willing to provide their insurance information — as a way to recoup at least some of the costs of staging the massive weekly vaccination clinics.

“It takes an incredible amount of manpower every week to put on the large-scale vaccine clinics, which the small administration fee really does not begin to cover,” Grand River CEO Jim Coombs said. “However, the community benefit of Grand River Health assisting in getting the vaccine out to our community is core to our mission, and the right thing to do.”

Also, by agreeing to cover that administration fee with no cost-share obligation to the patient, Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance see the benefit in paying the fee as a way to get the vaccine administered to as many people as possible, he said. “It’s really a win for insurance companies, as well, because it is much more cost-effective for them to pay a small admin fee than to pay for the costly treatment of a COVID patient,” Coombs said.

Even if the insurance company declines to pay, which is possible under some pre-ACA private health plans, “there is still absolutely no cost to the patient,” he said.

On the front end, when a person arrives at the vaccination clinic there is no requirement to present identification, insurance information, or even residency, Coombs said.

Elsewhere, Garfield County Public Health, which has switched to a walk-in format for its weekly vaccine clinics across the county, and Voces Unidas, which stepped up to provide the vaccine to the area’s Latino community, have not been billing insurance.

Mountain Family Health Centers has indicated on its vaccination information web page that insurance may be billed to help recoup costs. City Market has also reportedly been billing for a nominal administration fee for those who have insurance.

Hospitals adjust to lag in vaccine demand

As Garfield County Public Health noticed a recent downturn in demand for appointment-based vaccines at its clinics, prompting a move to a walk-in format, the county’s two hospitals are also making adjustments to their weekly clinics.

“We are noticing a change in our vaccine clinics,” Gavrell said. “Previously, we would announce a vaccine clinic and it would be full within a manner of minutes or hours.”

However, in more recent weeks, she said the Glenwood hospital has had to get more creative with its outreach to fill first-dose clinics. Still, though, nearly every appointment is getting filled, Gavrell said.

“Our staff have been incredible allies in sharing the news of our clinics, and so too have other partners such as our local chambers, government organizations, etc.,” she said.

Clinic times have also been adjusted, including one last week from 5-6 p.m., to reach people who are unable to get away during the normal work day.

“We had people attend the clinic and express their gratitude for the new schedule,” Gavrell said.

In addition, Valley View continues with the practice of making rounds to its in-hospital patients, the Emergency Department and other on-site medical clinics, offering the vaccine to anyone who wants it, Gavrell said.

Grand River in Rifle is continuing with its Friday vaccination clinics, and won’t stop until demand wanes, Grand River Community Relations Director Annick Pruett said.

“Getting the community vaccinated is a top priority for our Board of Directors and leadership,” she said. “We have had some issues getting all of our shipments of new vaccine the last two weeks, but we continue to vaccinate every Friday.”

The recent slowdown, however, will mean an eventual transition for Grand River to providing the clinics when the time is right for those who still want or need a vaccine, she said.

Grand River staff has also been assisting Garfield Public Health with its vaccination efforts in local high schools and other off-site locations, Pruett said.

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

Garfield Public Health vaccine clinic adding walk-in option; mobile vax unit visiting area next week

A recent drop in scheduled appointments for people seeking COVID-19 vaccines has prompted a shift to a walk-in format for Garfield County Public Health vaccine clinics going forward.

Beginning with the planned Saturday vaccination clinic at the Rifle Public Health office, 195 W. 14th St., anyone 18 and older can stop by between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to receive a Moderna vaccine.

“No appointment necessary, just walk in,” GCPH public information officer Carrie Godes said.

Upcoming COVID-19 vaccination clinics

11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, April 24, Rifle Public Health office, 195 W. 14th St. (appointment or walk-in welcome)

3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 28, Glenwood Springs Public Health office, 2014 Blake Ave. (appointment or walk-in welcome)

4:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 29, Rifle Public Health office, 195 W. 14th St. (appointment or walk-in welcome)

State mobile vaccine pop-up clinics

Friday, April 30

10 a.m.-2 p.m., Apple Tree Mobile Home Park, 5175 County Road 335, New Castle

3-6 p.m., Cottonwood Mobile Home Park, 27653 U.S. 6 #100, Rifle

The mobile clinic will be administering the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine to ages 16+ and be scheduling folks for their follow-up shot, done by Garfield County Public Health, three weeks later.

Bilingual medical staff will be present all day to answer any questions. No health insurance or ID is required, and the vaccines are free of charge.

Source: Garfield County Public Health

Those who still prefer to schedule a specific time can still do so online, or by calling 970-665-6371.

“We will also take those individuals needing their second dose shots who were unable to keep their original appointments elsewhere,” Godes said.

“This makes it easier than ever to get your COVID vaccine,” she said. “We are here when you are ready, and changing the way we run our clinics to be more responsive to the public’s needs.”

Approximately 200 doses are expected to be available for the Saturday clinic in Rifle.

Godes noted that statewide, vaccine sites have noticed a significant drop in appointments for vaccines. Many of the state-run mass vaccination sites are also moving to a walk-in or drive-up format.

“In just one weeks’ time we seem to have gone from vaccine appointments filling very quickly to having many vaccine appointments remaining available,” she said.

In addition, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has scheduled a mobile vaccine pop-up clinic in Garfield County on Friday, April 30, with stops at the Apple Tree and Cottonwood mobile home parks in New Castle and Rifle (see information above.)

Public Health is also working with the local schools to administer the Pfizer vaccine for students age 16 and 17, starting in the western part of the county this weekend and moving to the Roaring Fork Schools next week, Godes said.

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

Garfield County encourages continued mask use, other COVID-19 precautions

Garfield County residents are “encouraged,” but not mandated, to continue wearing masks indoors and follow other health-safety practices to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check.

Beyond that, though, the county is essentially reopened to pre-pandemic levels in all but a few sectors still governed by state public health rules.

The exception is within Glenwood Springs city limits, where City Council last week extended its ordinance requiring masks to be worn indoors, at least through May 20.

Also, if a county’s one-week incidence rate exceeds 35 per 100,000 people, face coverings continue to be required indoors if there are 10 or more people present who are unvaccinated or their vaccination status is unknown, County Attorney Tari Williams noted, pointing to the latest state public health orders.

Tracking and enforcing that, however, would be difficult, commissioners concurred. The county will continue with an “education before enforcement” approach, they said.

Currently, Garfield County’s one-week incidence rate does exceed that level.

As of Monday, it stood at 108 per 100,000, which remains in the “concern” level. However, that is down significantly from last week when the local incidence rate exceeded 157 per 100,000.

Following the April 15 elimination of the state COVID-19 dial system that previously governed county-level restrictions, and a return to local control, the Board of County Commissioners on Monday passed a resolution outlining the county’s policy.

“The BOCC recognizes that the pandemic is not over and that as state restrictions decline the burden of preventing virus spread becomes a local issue,” states the resolution, which passed 3-0. “Going forward, Garfield County will treat COVID-19 like all other communicable diseases as defined by the CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control).”

At the same time, the commissioners wish to “move Garfield County residents and the economy forward and strike a locally appropriate balance between the serious need to continue to curtail virus spread with the need to ensure small businesses and the local economy can open to the extent that each is comfortable …”

County Commissioner Mike Samson noted that the key word in the resolution is “encourages.”

“This is not mandatory,” he said of the recommendation that people continue to wear masks indoors.

When it comes to private businesses requiring a mask, though, patrons should comply with that, Samson said.

“If a business wants you to wear a mask, you should respect that,” he said. “We’re just asking everybody to use common sense and to be respectful of each other.”

Two of Garfield County’s primary medical providers formally requested that the county commissioners consider requiring masks when in public indoor settings.

“The great news is that we have already protected a sizeable portion of our most vulnerable population,” said Drs. Kevin Coleman and Matt Percy, chief medical officers respectively for Grand River Health and Mountain Family Health Centers, in a letter to the commissioners.

“However, we still have not vaccinated enough of the general public to prevent rapid spread of COVID-19 if other public health measures are removed,” the letter states, adding that 70% of the local population should be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Currently, about 40% of the Garfield County population has been fully vaccinated, Mason Hohstadt, public health specialist for Garfield County Public Health, said during the monthly COVID-19 update to the commissioners Monday.

About 52% have received at least their first dose of one of the two-dose vaccines that have been available, he said.

Masks continue to be required, per state public health orders, in certain settings. Those include some businesses and government offices, larger indoor gatherings or events, schools and child-care facilities, assisted living/nursing homes, and other types of group homes.

Garfield County continues its stepped-up efforts to accommodate as many people who want to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health Director Yvonne Long said.

Recently, the CDPHE agreed to offer a community mass vaccination site in Glenwood Springs, possibly by the second week of May, she said.

Also, the state is sponsoring a mobile vaccination van that will be traveling through the Western Slope and is expected to make stops in Garfield County.

“We are increasing our availability to be able to vaccinate more and more people … and bring as many avenues as possible to people who still want to seek out that vaccine,” Long said.

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

Glenwood Springs city staff volunteering at Valley View vaccine clinic Thursday

Glenwood Springs city staff will be volunteering their time to help with Valley View Hospital’s vaccine clinic on Thursday.

To schedule an appointment, go to https://www.vvh.org/covid-19-updates/covid-19-vaccine/.

Glenwood Springs City Manager Debra Figueroa said city staff will be staffing the first part of the volunteer effort on Thursday morning.

“I’ve signed us up to support them through the next eight clinics and some firefighters will help give shots,” Figueroa said.

The vaccine appointments are for the Pfizer vaccine.

The second dose is slated for Friday, May 7 at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. “You must be able to make your second dose appointment as the hospital cannot accommodate alternative scheduling.

For additional scheduling assistance, call 970-384-7632 Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

An appointment is required to receive a vaccine at Valley View. No walk-ins are allowed. If you do not meet the eligibility criteria or your criteria cannot be verified, your appointment may be cancelled. Vaccines at Valley View are administered at no charge.

Reporter Shannon Marvel can be reached at 605-350-8355 or smarvel@postindependent.com.

Lack of interest puts early end to Pitkin County’s mass vaccination clinics

Public health officials will end Pitkin County’s mass vaccination clinics earlier than expected after numerous cancellations last week and dwindling local interest in getting vaccinated, a spokeswoman said Monday.

“The challenge in filling appointments last week was telling,” said Tracy Trulove, a Pitkin County spokeswoman.

Initially, the county’s public health department planned to move the mass vaccination clinics from the Benedict Music Tent parking lot to the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot at the end of April and hold clinics there the first two weeks of May, with the last clinic scheduled for May 14.

But after many people canceled vaccination appointments Friday, and with others displaying a lack of interest in the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, officials decided to spare the expense of staging mass clinics in May, Trulove said.

Officials will administer 1,170 second doses of the Pfizer vaccine Thursday at the Benedict Music Tent parking lot, though the county received zero doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, she said. The final two mass vaccination clinics will be held at the Benedict site April 22 and 23, Trulove said.

After that, the clinical arm of the public health department — Community Health Services — will administer vaccines, as will local primary care physicians and pharmacies, she said. The county will stop ordering vaccines from the state after next week in favor of the smaller distribution systems.

Clark’s Pharmacy and City Market Pharmacy are offering vaccine appointments locally, Trulove said. Those who want to find a place to receive a vaccine can go to Pitkin County’s website at https://covid19.pitkincounty.com and look for the vaccine finder.

Public health officials also are reserving 150 Pfizer doses for local 16- and 17-year-olds, who were notified of the vaccine availability through the Aspen School District, Trulove said. As of Monday, 95 of those 150 appointments had been filled, she said.

RFTA offers workers $500 bonus to get COVID vaccine

A Mountain Rescue Aspen member, who declined to provide his name, vaccinates Lisa Kilby with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine alongside Jackie Lapid, right, and dog Freya in their car at the vaccine tent in Aspen on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Top officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority are disappointed a $500 bonus for employees who get the COVID-19 vaccine has not spurred more action.

As of Tuesday, 212 out of 385 employees for the public transit agency had been fully vaccinated, Jason Smith, RFTA’s safety and training manager, informed the board of directors at a meeting Thursday. Another 18 employees had one dose at that time, he said, boosting the number of fully or partially vaccinated employees to 59%.

Smith said a “surge” of employees got their shots when the bonus was announced and then tailed off. The program is one of the most generous in the valley.

Kurt Ravenschlag, RFTA’s chief operating officer, indicated RFTA officials thought the bonus would inspire more employees to act fast to get the vaccinations.

“We were probably hoping to be at higher numbers than 59%,” he said.

But the number could be lagging because of workload. RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship noted that winter is a busy time for the bus agency’s workers and that some worked overtime during the season.

Getting to scheduled vaccination clinics on a designated day might not have worked for many workers, especially since shots were initially only available in Aspen. Since then, vaccinations have become available in Eagle and Garfield counties and at local pharmacies.

Ed Cortez, a RFTA bus driver and president of the local chapter of the union for drivers, said he believes the $500 bonus was a good incentive that is appreciated by drivers and other employees.

“I would have been happy with $250,” Cortez said. “They went with $500 and I was ecstatic.”

Like Blankenship, Cortez said many drivers haven’t had the time to get their vaccination because of workload. He estimated 75% of them have indicated they will get the shots.

RFTA’s executive team decided in mid-February to offer the financial incentive. The agency was informed by Pitkin County Public Health on Feb. 15 that frontline workers would be eligible for vaccinations in Phase 1B.3, with shots first administered Feb. 25. All RFTA employees, regardless of their department, were considered frontline workers. RFTA management passed on information to employees on how to register for an appointment for a vaccination. However, not everyone could go on the same day since the agency had to maintain bus service.

RFTA management initially figured it would have until March or April to work on a campaign to encourage employees to get vaccinated and determine whether or not to offer an incentive. Instead, it had to act fast in February.

Officials decided that any financial incentive had to be a substantial amount based on lackluster response to a $50 bonus to get a flu shot. Only about 30% of employees got their flu shot.

RFTA also felt the expense of offering $500 incentives was worth it, considering the financial toll that COVID-19 has had on the organization.

“Since the pandemic began, RFTA has had over 130 employees who have either tested positive for COVID-19, experienced COVID-19-like symptoms and were required to quarantine, or were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and required to quarantine,” a March 11 staff memo to the board said.

“During 2020, RFTA incurred over $2 million in direct costs associated with managing the pandemic and on protecting its employees and the public,” the staff memo continued. “These costs are currently ongoing in 2021.”

The bonus is considered a good investment, Blankenship told The Aspen Times. If all employees qualify, it would cost slightly less than $200,000.

Several RFTA employees required extensive hospitalization and they might face significant health effects in the future after getting infected with COVID-19.

“If, by providing a $500 bonus for our employees to get vaccinated, we can help reduce the potential of someone else at RFTA becoming severely ill or worse, it will have been worth it, in my estimation,” Blankenship wrote in an email to The Times.

The expense of the incentives will be more than offset by federal funds RFTA received as part of the coronavirus relief effort. RFTA will receive $19.25 million through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. The grant is intended to make up for added expenses and lost revenues tied to the pandemic.

RFTA has taken several steps to try to keep employees — drivers, in particular — safe during the pandemic. Steps include limiting contact between drivers and passengers, thoroughly cleaning buses after every shift and requiring masks. RFTA did not offer hazard pay for drivers and other frontline workers this winter.

“In some ways, the $500 vaccination incentive bonus might be considered a bit of hazard pay bonus as well,” Blankenship said via email. “The bonus is a higher than normal amount, which is a reflection of the value RFTA places on the health of its employees and how vital we consider what they do is to the health of the organization and the mobility of the public we serve.”

scondon@aspentimes.com