Community leaders stress vigilance ahead of Thanksgiving
Depending how things play out over the next few weeks, it may be ironic or prophetic that local officials involved with crafting Eagle County’s COVID-19 response chose Opening Day at Vail to conduct a community discussion titled “A Safer Winter.”
The event, which was live steamed over ECTV and the county’s Facebook page on Friday, featured remote appearances by Eagle County Public Heath and Environment Director Heath Harmon, Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron, Vail Health President and CEO Will Cook and Vail Valley Partnership Executive Director Chris Romer. Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry moderated the presentation.
“Things have changed quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. This should not be news to anyone,” said Harmon. Last week the county’s COVID-19 status moved from yellow (caution) to orange (high risk) on the state meter and a series of new restrictions were put into place.
Harmon noted that beginning over the Labor Day holiday and continuing on through early October, case numbers in Eagle County started to climb. The pace picked up in mid October, leading to surging spread after Halloween.
“The level of disease in our community right now is high. From my perspective it is too high,” Harmon said.
That means community businesses, organizations and residents are all feeling the stress, he continued. Local parents are particularly concerned that schools will be forced to transition to remote learning, Harmon noted. Since the onset of the county’s COVID-19 response, offering safe in-school instruction has been a primary goal.
“Our school environments happen to be one of our safer environments,” Harmon noted, pointing to strong protocols in place to help prevent disease spread. But kids and staff members don’t spend all day, every day in the classroom and their homes and social environments are the places where COVID-19 is most likely to spread.
Harmon said social gatherings are now the primary source of disease transmission in Eagle County. He noted that includes everything from three or four people from different households gathering for dinner to birthday parties with dozens of people present. And while the disease spread starts there, it quickly spreads to restaurants, businesses and groups throughout the county.
With transmission rates growing, it didn’t take long for the query to come up during the session’s question and answer period: With so much concern about disease spread, why are visitors still welcome to visit? One session participant asked: Should the county be limiting the number of visitors?
Romer pointed to national data that shows 50% of potential travelers have no interest in traveling right now.
“I think there is a very natural reduction in travel that is happening,” he said.
Romer said that local visitors must comply with the same regulations as residents and emphasized that lodges are studiously sharing restriction information as part of pre-arrival and check-in procedures.
As for the mountain itself, Romer noted that resort operators have been working with state officials to develop COVID-19 operational rules. “The governor has been pretty clear … that skiing is inherently a safe sport.”
The concern, Romer noted, is with visitors’ other activities such as dining and shopping. But Romer cited data from a national survey that showed increased visitor spending in communities with mask ordinances. He said that should be taken as a signal that visitors will willingly participate in the county’s safety rules.
“Consumers want communities that are safe,” Romer said. “If you really support economic recovery, wear a mask.”
How bad is it?
Several online particapants asked: Is the current outbreak worse than the March/April disease spread that resulted in a nationwide shutdown?
“Yes, in a word,” Harmon said. “We are almost double where we were in March and April.”
On top of concerning disease spread figures, hospitalization figures are another very concerning trend. Right now there are nearly 1,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Colorado. That compares to around 900 last spring.
Vail Health and the other medial providers in the county are affected by this trend of high hospitalization numbers, Cook noted, even though right now there are only four COVID-19 cases at the Eagle County hospital. But if any of those patients require specialized care that isn’t available at Vail Health, there is an issue of finding a facility that isn’t full where they can be transferred.
Along with the concerning medical consequences of a COVID-19 surge, Cook noted that second order consequences are straining local medical capacity. Alcohol and drug use is rising, for example, along with behavioral health concerns.
“When we think about moving from yellow to orange or from orange to red, that is weighing heavily on people. We are trying to keep you safe from the virus and keep you safe from the second order consequences,” Cook said.
“We are really worried about what Thanksgiving is going to do,” offered Barron.
He noted there is an enforcement system in place to address violations of COVID-19 restrictions. But when spread is happening in social situations, that’s a difficult enforcement problem, according to Barron. He noted, for example, that the cops won’t be peeking through peoples’ windows on Thanksgiving afternoon to make sure there aren’t more than 10 people at a table.
Instead, Barron stressed the need for everyone in the community, both residents and visitors, to voluntarily comply with restrictions and bring the case numbers down.
“I think we can start to see a change, but it will take everybody’s buy-in,” he said.
On the horizon
Even as they stressed the importance of limiting social contacts and following COVID-19 safety practices, the panel members said there is hope on the not-too-distant horizon.
“We are seeing some really tremendous information about vaccines right now,” Harmon said. “I know this seems hopeless, but there is a vaccine coming.”
When the vaccine does arrive, who will be the top candidates to receive it, asked a session participant.
“When that vaccine becomes available in our community, it will be a limited supply,” Harmon agreed. He said vulnerable populations, people who have underlying health issues, health care workers, first responders and front-line workers would likely be the first groups targeted for vaccination.
Barron noted another issue is likely to arise when the vaccine comes into widespread use. He said there would likely be people who are resistant to taking the vaccine or people who have contracted COVID-19 and believe they are now immune.
“A lot of our faith in getting through is dependent on that vaccine and making certain that people get the vaccine,” he said. “We have seen at least three reinfections in the valley. That is not a rare occurrence for COVID.”
In closing, the panel participants were asked to share one important COVID-19 message with local residents. Harmon challenged the community to cut the number of cases by half in the coming three weeks by closely following disease safety precautions. Cook urged residents to reach out to contact friends and neighbors to make sure they are faring well during this isolating time.
“I am going to encourage everyone to support local businesses,” said Romer, noting that this valley’s small businesses are one of COVID-19’s vulnerable populations.
“Tell people who listen to you that this (observing COVID-19 precautions) is important to you,” advised Barron.
Chandler-Henry appealed to residents and visitors to heed the advice offered during the presentation, particularly during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
“Next week is in your hands,” she said.