Eagle County has brief window to avoid dipping to red COVID-19 stage
If a wildfire was barreling toward your home, chances are you would not wait for local police to say it was time to evacuate.
Eagle County wants people to feel the same kind of urgency in their behavior regarding COVID-19 precautions.
On Monday, the county moved to the orange stage of COVID-19 restrictions. But during Tuesday’s weekly COVID-19 update, the two-week case data shows that the incidence level in Eagle County — the number of cases per 100,000 people — is at level red. The state classifies anything higher than 350 cases per 100,000 people as red level incidence, and Eagle County’s incidence rate over the past two weeks is 633.7.
There have been 380 new cases reported in the county over the past two weeks.
“Because we just moved to orange and that move involved a lot of work with the state beforehand, we are not immediately moving to red,” said Eagle County Communications Director Kris Widlak. “However, that doesn’t mean we won’t be moving to red in the future. Our hope is we will be able to have at least a couple of weeks to change our ways.”
County officials stressed it is now critical that people look at their behavior and curtail activities that lead to disease spread.
“People are trying to understand the rules so they can get around them,” said Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney. “But this is a time when we are asking people to do as much as they can and to follow the rules. It’s going to take all of us making sacrifices to get through the next few weeks.”
With Eagle County now in the orange level of the state’s COVID-19 risk meter, a new public health order was issued Monday that cuts back restaurant, business and office indoor capacity to 25% and includes a number of other restrictions. The change came after Eagle County, like virtually the rest of Colorado and the nation, saw a big spike in cases. According to Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron, last week the county recorded an average of 37 new positive cases per day.
“We only see the curve going up. We have seen the numbers double every two weeks over the last month or so,” he said.
Mitigating the county’s disease spread numbers are two other critical statistics — the number of local tests that come back positive and local hospitalizations. The positive testing rate — 8.7% — is classified as yellow level risk by the state. The local number of hospitalizations — currently at 3 — is classified as green.
But local residents can’t rely on hospitalization numbers to remain so low, Barron said.
“As the base level of disease in the community gets higher, the severe disease gets higher too,” he said.
Barron also noted there are currently 1,294 COVID-19 patients in Colorado hospitals and that many facilities are now full and not accepting transfers. That impacts local medical providers who would normally transfer patients — both COVID-19 cases and other critically ill patients — to larger facilities with more expansive care options.
Barron re-emphasized the message that’s been constant since September: People gathering together in smaller social settings are fueling the spike in disease spread. He noted that 29% of newly reported first, second, and third generation cases are associated with an event such as a party, wedding, or out of state sports tournament. Exacerbating that number is the fact that not all community members are isolating when they are sick or quarantining when exposed, creating multiple opportunities of spread not only within families and friend groups, but to community members not socially connected to the initial case.
“Our largest opportunity for change is in people changing their personal behaviors,” Barron said. At the very least, residents need to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people from no more than two households.
Complying with the five commitments of containment is vital, Barron added, and other county officials chimed in with additional advice.
County Manager Jeff Shroll said he has been in the habit of wearing a mask into a restaurant, but then removing it once he was seated. “Now when I am at a restaurant, I am keeping my mask on except when I am taking a sip of something or eating whatever I have ordered,” he said.
Commissioner McQueeney delved into the subject of people whose COVID-19 tests come back with a negative result. “That does not say you are safe to go home to visit grandma,” she stressed, pointing to a graph from Vail Health to illustrate the point.
“The truth is you can receive a negative test several days after exposure while the virus is still growing in your body,” Barron said. There is a specific window when the test will come back positive, he explained, and oftentimes people are tested outside of that window. But when they get a negative result, residents often go about their business falsely believing they aren’t infected and can’t spread the virus.
“Testing does nothing if you are not following precautions,” he said.
As Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry noted, the early COVID-19 advice still stands. If you know you have been exposed, quarantine for 14 days regardless of test results or the absence of symptoms. She noted that is a hard call to make, but it is easier than the restrictions that will come if Eagle County moves to red stage.
“Things are tough right now with COVID. We understand that people are struggling and that business are struggling,” Chandler-Henry said.
But local officials stressed that if the county doesn’t bring down its numbers, the state will move its classification to red. The rules that accompany that move with will go into affect and the days of applying for a variance to state regulations are over.
“Once we moved into the state system, they are not granting variances. We can do more restrictive rules, but we can’t go less restrictive,” Widlak said.
The county’s comprehensive COVID-19 information can be found at eaglecountycovid.org.