Hockey prompts Pitkin County’s largest COVID-19 outbreak since pandemic began
Most of the teams were from Pitkin, Eagle or Garfield counties
The largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Pitkin County since the pandemic began in March 2020 occurred earlier this month in connection with hockey games played by both adults and kids, an official said Wednesday.
The 44 new cases so far associated with the outbreak — more are expected — prompted a statewide alert late Tuesday night by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment notifying the state’s other 63 counties of what happened in Pitkin County and asking that any cases possibly connected to the Pitkin County outbreaks be reported to local public health officials here, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.
“We were not expecting an outbreak of this size at this point,” Vance said Wednesday. “This was a very wide exposure event, so it’s difficult to discern where it came from. We think a lack of masks was a significant factor.”
The exposures all took place the weekend of Nov. 5-7, and are linked to hockey games at the Aspen Ice Garden, the ice rink at the Aspen Recreation Center and the Glenwood Springs Ice Rink. A total of 31 men and women and five children under 18 who either played in or attended the games that weekend tested positive for the virus. Eight more people exposed later by those who were initially sickened also tested positive for COVID-19, Vance said.
Of the 36 hockey-related cases, the vast majority were hockey players, though non-players also were infected. None of the cases of COVID-19 linked to the hockey outbreaks resulted in severe symptoms or required hospitalization, he said.
Technically, public health officials consider the COVID-19 hockey outbreak two separate incidents, “but there’s definitely some crossover between the two,” Vance said.
The first occurred among two junior hockey teams during a tournament held that weekend, which sickened the five players. The second took place during regular league games involving adults and infected at least one person from 10 different teams. Most of the teams were from Pitkin, Eagle or Garfield counties, though one was one from Routt County, he said.
Public health officials were inundated with the cases in about two days.
“They all came in almost at once,” Vance said. “It’s the largest outbreak we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The city of Aspen, which owns the recreation center and the Ice Garden, was notified Nov. 12 of 17 COVID-19 cases related to B-league and C-league hockey games, said Denise White, city communications director. A-league games were allowed to continue.
“Following guidance from Pitkin County Public Health, the adult hockey games on (Nov. 12) and (Nov. 14) were canceled,” White said Wednesday in an email to The Aspen Times.
The city was contemplating Wednesday what to do about the games this weekend, she said.
Regardless of when hockey returns, players will likely notice a difference the next time they play at the Ice Garden or the ARC. The city plans to redouble efforts to enforce the indoor mask policy among teams playing at those venues, White said.
“We’re going to zero tolerance on enforcement of the (indoor mask) policy,” she said. “I wouldn’t say there was lax enforcement (before), but we have the same challenges a lot of businesses and groups face here — and that’s being everywhere at once.”
City recreation officials are even pondering requiring each team appoint a mask monitor to enforce the rule, White said.
“It’s putting the onus on the teams playing,” she said. “If somebody slips up, game over.”
The Pitkin County Board of Health required mandatory indoor masks beginning Sept. 16 because of a high local COVID-19 transmission rate. The county issued face covering guidance for sports soon after.
“Pitkin County’s local Face Covering Order requires all individuals age 2 and older to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth whenever they are participating in indoor sports,” according to the online guidance. “Pitkin County’s Face Covering Order does not provide an exception for engaging in sports with others while indoors.”
Further, “any variance granted by the State of Colorado allowing an individual to remove their face covering while participating in certain sports such as hockey, (high school) spirit or (high school) wrestling does not apply in Pitkin County unless specifically authorized by Pitkin County Public Health,” the sports guidance states.
Keith Howie, Aspen High School hockey coach, posted a note online Wednesday informing his players — who use city hockey facilities — of the new normal when it comes to mask-wearing at the city facilities where they play.
“This includes gameplay on the ice, changing in the locker rooms and within the facilities always,” according to Howie’s note, which quotes a city employee in charge of the ice rink. “… (In) order to keep players on the ice and leagues going, we will be requiring masks always.”
The city also has ordered “hockey specific masks” that will sell for $10 each and be available in the next two weeks, according to Howie’s note.
While public health officials think mask use was lax at the hockey games — some who tested positive admitted not wearing a mask while others said they wore masks at times — the game also lends itself to transmission because it involves close-contact play, Vance said. Spread may have occurred in locker rooms, as well.
Pitkin County public health officials are working closely with the leagues, which are cooperating, to continue case investigation and help them move forward.
Pitkin County’s high vaccination rate may have had something to do with the fact that none of the cases became severe or required hospitalization, Vance said.
The vast majority of the 31 adults who tested positive in the hockey outbreak were fully vaccinated, which may be the reason none of the cases became severe. And while a few had received booster shots of the vaccines, none of them had completed the 14-day waiting period necessary before the fullest immunity takes hold, he said.
“Something we’re noticing … is that almost all who tested positive got their last dose over six months ago,” he said. “We know there is a waning over time.”
Vance compared the virus to other diseases that require a few or more vaccine doses for protection, including polio, which requires four doses.
“For COVID, we may need more,” Vance said.
He said evidence shows that a COVID-19 booster shot provides significant additional protection.
Public health officials continue to emphasize that while fully vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 — the delta variant is virulent and likely responsible for the hockey outbreak — getting the vaccine will almost certainly guarantee a milder case of the virus if infection occurs, they say.
“Even with the outbreak, we haven’t seen any resulting hospitalizations,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said. “The normal course (of the vaccine) is doing its job.”
As of Wednesday, Pitkin County public health officials had not yet officially heard anything about more cases linked to the hockey outbreaks from other counties. However, Vance said he’d heard anecdotally that more cases do exist outside Pitkin County but have not yet been officially reported.
Before Nov. 9, Pitkin County was doing fairly well managing COVID-19 cases compared with the rest of the state. The incidence rate was slowly but surely going down, while the state’s was rising.
For example, between Nov. 3 and Nov. 9, Pitkin County’s daily number of new cases bounced between 28 and 33, while the incidence rate per 100,000 people ranged between 158 and 186, which isn’t low but is lower than the state average, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboards.
Then the toll of the hockey outbreaks began to push both numbers up. Beginning Friday, the daily case count jumped to 44, then 49 on Sunday, 52 on Monday and 53 on Tuesday. That pushed the incidence rate to 298 per 100,000 people on Tuesday, according to the dashboards.
“I think what’s apparent is how this outbreak affects the incidence rate and transmission in the county,” Sabella said. “We are such a small county, (so) we do feel the ripple effects.”
Subtracting the cases associated with the hockey outbreaks puts Pitkin County’s incidence rate at 155 on Wednesday, Vance said, which is lower than the incidence rate has been in two weeks, according to the online dashboards. He said he expects the rate to drop in the near future because no new cases associated with the hockey outbreaks have been reported since Friday.
Still, with the upcoming holiday gatherings, increased tourist activity, winter forcing everyone inside and delta still lurking, the near future could bring more cases, Sabella said.
“The pandemic’s not over,” she said. “This winter we’re really seeing it play out how transmissible the delta variant is.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the city of Aspen was notified Nov. 12; and the polio vaccine takes four shots.