Can the Vail Valley save its ski season?
The current state of COVID-19 infections in Eagle County and Colorado is dire. Cutting that infection rate is key to saving the coming ski season.
The Vail Town Council on Tuesday talked about the local state of the pandemic, and steps now being taken to try to contain the virus.
With Vail Mountain opening Friday and Thanksgiving just a week away, business, government and public health officials are working to try to tamp down the spread of the virus. Over the past month or so, the virus has spread at new levels.
Talking to councilmembers, Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon said the most recent data shows the county’s incidence of the virus now stands at more than 633 cases per 100,000 population. There have been 380 cases in the past two weeks.
While the infection rate is higher than it’s ever been this year, Vail Health Hospital as of Wednesday had just one COVID-19 patient.
That would seem to show there’s plenty of capacity. Vail Health CEO Will Cook said that isn’t the case.
Cook said the hospital could handle as many as 20 COVID-19 patients. But, he added, health officials have to think beyond the confines of the valley.
“You have to think about capacity on the Front Range and Western Slope,” Cook said.
A patient who starts to display signs of lung or kidney failure has to be transported to hospitals with those and other specialists on staff. If there aren’t beds available in the Denver area — and those beds are in short supply right now — that patient could be in serious trouble.
And, Cook added, the way the virus is spreading means that “we could go from two patients to 12” in a matter of a few days.
In addition to those who are sick, Cook said the hospital now has about 30 medical staff members who are either in quarantine or isolation.
“The biggest threat to us is keeping a healthy, viable workforce,” Cook said.
That workforce is crucial because as Denver-area hospitals become more busy with COVID cases, other patients may be sent to hospitals out of the metro area, including Vail.
In addition to the pandemic itself, the virus is affecting people in other ways.
Councilmember Brian Stockmar said he’s concerned that people on the front lines — a group that includes medical professionals, teachers and others — are getting worn out.
“We’re hearing (that) clearly,” Harmon said. “The best way to prevent burnout is to decrease the level of transmission.”
A lot of that transmission seems to be coming from private gatherings. Harmon joined the chorus of health officials elsewhere in the U.S. by urging people to rethink their holiday travel plans and not gather with those outside their households.
In addition to official restrictions and exhortations for responsible individual behavior, Vail officials are also working to move around locals and guests in the face of new restrictions.
Vail and all other transit agencies in the state can now fill buses to no more than 50% of capacity.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson said the town will be “really challenged” to carry passengers effectively.
Robson said the biggest concerns are the town’s outlying areas. Operational changes will require doubling up buses on some routes.
Even with that, “the public should expect longer waits,” Robson said. And, while the town for years has discouraged driving into the resort villages, Robson said people may need to consider taking their cars into those areas.
Councilmember Jen Mason asked Robson if the town could provide hosts on buses so drivers can focus on driving.
Robson replied that’s an idea worth considering, adding that it’s going to be essential to keep the public informed about occupancy and other issues with the transit system.
On the topic of communication, Robson told councilmembers that the town has posted signs around town about Vail’s outdoor mask mandate for the resort areas.
Councilmember Kevin Foley asked if those messages could also include thanks to guests and locals and give reasons for the new rules.
“We should let people know why we’re trying — we’re trying to keep our businesses open,” Foley said.
Robson called Foley’s request a “great layer that needs to be added” to the town’s messaging.
The town has also ordered what Robson called “many thousands” of Vail-branded face coverings. Those coverings will be given to businesses, and will be available on town buses and at the town’s welcome centers.
Robson said those coverings, along with other restrictions and requirements, will help the town “make it clear this is a critical part” of trying to contain the virus.
“That’s a critical piece of destination travelers making their decision this winter,” he added.
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