Eagle County eyes indoor mask mandate as local COVID-19 cases skyrocket
Board of health meeting Wednesday will discuss mandate as omicron-fueled surge results in 250% increase in cases in a week
On Monday, Eagle County set a disturbing record — 139 new COVID-19 cases were reported.
That number will likely increase as more test data is reported, and it is the latest evidence that the new omicron variant-fueled surge has hit the Colorado High Country. Over the past seven days, there has been a 250% increase in the number of local COVID-19 cases. The county is now averaging 700 cases per 100,000 — a high it has never hit in previous waves.
“This one just went from 1 case to 700 cases pretty quickly,” said Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll. “We skipped all the other hundreds and went right to 700.”
Confronted with the surge numbers, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners has set a special board of health meeting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. According to Shroll, local health officials will present the most recent COVID-19 statistics and the board will consider public health amendments. In particular, the board will debate imposing an indoor mask mandate.
“We had been looking at end-game strategies to get out of the pandemic,” Shroll noted, “but this one has gotten out of hand so quickly we think that masks are a useful tool to put on the table.”
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Masks are less economically impactful than capacity limits and other previous public health orders, Shroll noted.
“It is a good tool we have used in the past,” he noted. “Hopefully with vaccination, masks and other precautions, we can get our numbers down.”
According to Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health, local COVID-19 positive test results have been climbing for the past week.
“Our percentage of positives now is just unheard of. It is certainly one the highest in the country,” he said. “What we are seeing is the biggest surge of COVID-19 ever, taking place right now in our community. At this time, anywhere you go in the community, if you are in an indoor area, you are very likely being exposed to COVID-19.”
Lindley noted that on Tuesday alone, more than 200 new cases had been reported in Eagle County. That figure includes both residents and visitors.
“This disease spreads faster than any respiratory virus we have ever dealt with and at this time, we do not know its severity,” Lindley continued. “We are prepared for it to be as severe as delta.”
Lindley noted that on average, there is a 10-14 day period between the time of infection and the time when severe COVID-19 brings a patient to the hospital.
“Most of our community members are just getting sick now. We will not know the scope of the severity for another week or two,” he said. “But we have seen double the patient volume at our urgent care facilities.”
The omicron surge is hitting at a particularly inconvenient time and spreading in a particularly impactful population. With the Christmas holidays looming, the valley’s population has boomed and the omicron variant is hitting a younger demographic.
“We went from 50,000 people to 80,000 people in the valley with the holiday,” Shroll said.
The most recent data shows that 38% of the new cases in Eagle County are people in their 20s. Another 26% are people in their 30s.
“That’s a big bite of our workforce,” Shroll said. “Even without the pandemic, we are rolling into the height of the ski season with a pretty significant worker shortage across all industries.”
And yes, health care is one of the industries impacted.
“From a staffing perspective we are already seeing the largest spread ever across our staff,” Lindley said. Currently, Vail Health has 20 employees under isolation orders because of COVID-19 exposure.
“That’s the most we have had to date in the pandemic,” Lindley said. “We are struggling to staff all the beds we have available.”
“When you think about putting all the factors together at once — the Christmas holiday, a resort community and the most infections disease ever seen — it is a challenge,” Lindley continued. “We are also surging forward to prepare for what will likely be more challenging days ahead. If there is a silver lining in this, it is that this disease transmits so quickly it will probably burn through our local resident population in a few weeks. It is just that contagious.”
After nearly two years of pandemic experience, Lindley said the best advice remains to take care of yourself. “People have to get and stay healthy. This will not be the last wave of COVID-19. We just want everyone to be aware of the situation and take the most precautions they can.”
Shroll noted as the current surge rolls through the valley, local public health workers want to make sure residents know where to find COVID-19 resources including early testing information.
“We really think that is the key, getting tested as soon as possible,” Shroll noted.
For information about COVID-19, including testing locations and vaccination options, visit EagleCountyCovid.org.