Eagle County reports ninth COVID-19 death as cases double in five days
'We are at a critical tipping point,' says county emergency management director
EAGLE — Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron issued an ominous warning Tuesday, saying the county is now at a critical COVID-19 tipping point.
And, for the first time in several weeks, the county on Tuesday reported a COVID-19 fatality. The victim, the ninth Eagle County resident to die from the virus, was a man in his 80s.
If county residents fail to limit social interactions and take appropriate precautions, the situation could deteriorate over the coming weeks and put Eagle County back to where it was in mid-March, Barron warned during his weekly presentation to the Eagle County Commissioners.
Barron noted there have been 71 local COVID-19 cases reported over the past 10 days with 47 of those cases reported over the past five days.
“This is exactly what a problem looks like,” Barron said.
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The data indicates that the number of confirmed local COVID-19 cases has doubled over the past five days. And, Barron noted, there is potential for those number to increase.
“We had three cases reported to us today that were submitted on July 2,” Barron said.
Testing turnaround is troubling
That delay in getting test results back is the biggest and most concerning breakdown in the local pandemic response, Barron said. He noted that Eagle County has robust testing capacity, with a number of available sites and a strong supply of testing materials.
“But those systems do not work if we do not have a quick testing turnaround,” he said. “That’s where our focus has to be over the next few weeks.”
Barron said there are currently 500 tests pending at Vail Health alone.
Last week the county announced it would be partnering with Garfield and Pitkin counties to coordinate regional testing strategies.
“Surges in cases nationwide are stressing the testing components supply chain and the capacity at state and commercial labs cannot keep up with the demand, often delaying results by up to 8 days.,” noted the news release announcing the new program. “A regional testing strategy will focus resources to decrease disease burden while supporting the needs of local communities. Health officials are seeking to improve capacity and decrease turn-around times, ideally so that test results are available within 48 hours, maximizing their utility.”
But even with the turnaround setbacks, Barron urged locals to get tested.
“If you have any of the COVID-19 symptoms, we want to you get tested and get tested early,” he said “What we would like people not to do is get tested just for a confidence builder.”
Barron said Eagle County remains in the “cautious” phase of its risk level.
“But as a community, we are headed more up against the “concerned” stage,” he said.
That movement isn’t unique to Eagle County, Barron noted, saying that the uptick in COVID-19 cases nationwide has been largely reported.
In tracking the local COVID-19 spread, Barron said that 42% of the cases could be tracked back to specific close contact and 5% of cases were traced to contacts outside of the county. But for 53% of the cases, no specific contact could be identified.
“That is an important shift. That indicates we are getting a higher amount of community spread,” Barron said.
He added that right now, even with the fatality reported on Tuesday, there isn’t a large local increase in severe COVID-19 cases.
“But I am not giving you good news with that,” he told the commissioners. “We haven’t seen an increase yet, locally, in severe disease but we have seen an increase in our neighboring jurisdictions.”
There is a lag time between when a community sees an increase in COVID-19 cases and when more cases become severe enough to require hospitalization, Barron explained.
Back to school?
While the local data shows more COVID-19 in the community, Barron said that doesn’t necessarily mean schools cannot open in a month. Local officials are working out plans for how in-person classes can proceed.
Barron said the conversation about school reopening needs to take a comprehensive view of safety and “acceptable risk.”
“The consequences of not having kids in school is incredibly high,” he noted. Those impacts aren’t limited to educational concerns, but also social and safety issues.
“And we need to recognize … that we are concerned about the children who do not have the best home environment,” Barron said.
Missing the point
After hearing Barron’s cautionary report, the Eagle County commissioners re-emphasized the importance of the five commitments of containment and the warning that accompanies the risk indicator graphic.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney noted that there is some confusion out in the community regarding what constitutes “medium” size groups or “large” size groups. But focusing on the number of people at a gathering misses the point, she noted.
“To me, it (the risk indicator) says to reduce contact,” she said. “We need to limit what we are doing.”
This week’s Eagle County COVID-19 data can be viewed at ECemergency.org.