Absent personal responsibility, Eagle County’s COVID-19 toolbox relies on regulation
Disease spread is largely traced to private social gatherings
As of Thursday, Eagle County’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 68 new cases of the disease had been reported over the past five days.
That is more than double the number of new cases reported in the previous five-day period and it’s the data that’s fueling a revision to Eagle County’s latest public health order. That order, which is still being drafted, is expected to limit outdoor public gathering sizes to 175 people, limit indoor public gatherings to no more than 100 people, and limit private gatherings to no more than 10 people. The proposal will not close down restaurants and bars that have already limited capacity by applying social distance requirements.
The new limitations stand in contrast to county orders that have been released during the past two months that brought good news to local residents and visitors. Previous orders opened up more businesses and social options following the March COVID-19 shutdown. But even as it opened up more community services, the county continued to stress its five commitments of containment and advised people to reduce contact with others. The new numbers demonstrate people have failed to fully heed those warnings.
“The disease levels in our community indicate that each and every one of us is failing in limiting the number of social interactions and maintaining distance and preventing disease spread,” said Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron.
“What we have to see is a change in how seriously our community takes this virus,” Barron continued. “It’s become very clear that if we don’t regulate a change in behavior, that change does not happen.”
Eagle County isn’t alone in making that discovery. On Thursday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis instituted a statewide face mask order.
Barron believes that people are letting down their COVID-19 guard because of emotional exhaustion. It’s fatiguing to keep up the COVID-19 vigilance, but the pandemic isn’t going away, he noted.
“We are going to be living with this disease for a long time and if every time we see a spike we have to go to shut down, that is not sustainable for the long-term,” he said.
Do this, not that
It’s paramount that Eagle County find its COVID-19 equilibrium, Barron said. If we shut down business, COVID-19 spread is addressed but then people can’t pay rent or feed families. He noted the latest public health order is aimed at tightening restrictions in areas that present more risk of community spread.
However, Barron noted there is an irony in play with the new order.
“Our disease spread is being driven, largely, by local residents and largely in private social gatherings,” he said.
So why does the new order specifically address larger public gatherings? Part of the reason is logistics. The county can’t keep backyard barbecues from happening, but it can shut down concerts and community events.
“When we have this much community spread from private social gatherings and households, large events become much more risky situations,” said Barron.
There’s a lot of armchair quarterbacks in the community right now, he continued. On social media and in private conversation, locals postulate that visitors are responsible for the increase in COVID-19 cases. However, Barron said the county’s contact tracing shows that 42% of the new cases can be traced to a close social contact while only 5% can be traced to exposure outside of the valley. A full 53% can’t be traced to a specific gathering or contact, and that is an indicator of community spread. That’s also why limited social contact is paramount to get a handle on COVID-19 spread.
As people grapple with what “limiting social contacts” means, Barron offered the definition he personally uses. To start with, he defines a social contact as more than 10 minutes of indoor exposure that happens within six feet of distance.
“I try to keep the number of social contacts I have in a one-week period to 10 people,” he said. “Most of those are my family and people at work and then I am confident that the potential group exposure is small.”
At the same time that COVID-19 cases are rising in the county, state and across the nation, testing issues have reemerged.
“We are entirely reliant on state and national systems to give us test results in the 24- to 48-hour time frame,” said Barron. “If we don’t have timely test turnaround time, our hands our tied. Without timely testings, we don’t have the tools we need to to understand the disease in the time frame that can make a difference.”
“Vail Health is, unfortunately, experiencing a significant delay in test results from the commercial lab we utilize,” said Chris Lindley, who has headed up Vail Health’s COVID-19 task force. “This delay is being caused by an influx of tests nationwide, and other labs, such as the state-run lab, are also experiencing similar delays.”
Eagle County is working with Garfield and Pitkin counties to coordinate a testing strategy as local residents report it takes 10 days or longer to get their test results.
“We will continue to push our partner lab to increase capacity for processing, and in the meantime, we have not turned anyone away from being tested,” Lindley said. “While people wait for test results, we encourage them to follow Eagle County Public Health guidance of staying at home and isolating.”
Which turns back to the personal behavior issue, Barron said.
“We don’t want to punish the businesses who are doing things right just because people are making bad personal decisions,” he said. “But if we don’t see a change in personal behavior, we don’t have a lot of tools to change that behavior other than regulation.”