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Getting vaccinated paid financial dividends for some Aspen Skiing Co. employees

Ice forms on the outside of a Silver Queen Gondola car while taking skiers to the top of Aspen Mountain on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. gave its employees 25,000 reasons to get vaccinated against COVID-19 this season.

The company held 15 drawings for $1,000 each and a grand prize drawing of $10,000 in December.

Skico president and CEO Mike Kaplan announced the vaccination mandate in September. While the vaccination rate was already above 90% for full-time, year-round employees at the time, it was lagging in some departments, and the company had a horde of seasonal employees lined up for ski season. The company had about 4,000 workers at the peak time over the holidays, according to Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications.

“We wanted to do everything we could to have a healthy workforce” and ensure the safety of customers, Hanle said.

The company required all employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. Unvaccinated employees were not allowed to start work until they got the jab.

“We had a number of employees who decided to move on because they didn’t want to get vaccinated,” Hanle said. “It wasn’t a significant number.”

To sweeten the pot, Skico started holding the $1,000 drawings in June and continued through the fall. Employees had to submit a vaccine card anyway, so they were urged to also fill out a vaccination form and enter the drawings. Early winners ranged from ski instructors to bartenders and ski patrollers, according to a September employee newsletter.

A worker at the concierge desk at the Little Nell Hotel won the big prize and pocketed $10,000 in December. She declined a request for an interview.

Even with the vaccine mandate, Skico’s ranks were hit hard when the omicron variant swept through the valley. Skico had COVID-19 testing sites at each of its four ski areas during the holiday period and urged employees who felt symptomatic or were exposed to take time for the slopeside test.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority was another major employer that offered incentives for workers to get vaccinations. The bus agency did not mandate vaccines but offered $500 bonuses to employees who got their shots. RFTA decided earlier this month to offer an additional $250 bonus for boosters. As of mid-January, 77% of the nearly 400 workers had been vaccinated. The booster rate wasn’t known.

Omicron surge on the decline in Eagle County

People wear masks as they grocery shop Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021 in Vail.
Kelly Getchonis/Courtesy Photo

With the latest surge of COVID-19 on the decline, local public health experts say it is time for Eagle County residents to take a collective deep breath.

From mid-December to the start of January, the omicron variant brought the highest transmission of COVID-19 the county has ever seen as the most contagious variant yet collided with increased tourism and holiday travel.

But now, some good news.

“We’ve seen a dramatic change over the last two weeks — all for the better,” Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health, said in an interview Thursday.

The average percentage of COVID-19 tests returning positive results remains heightened at 28.8% as of Friday, but this is a significant improvement compared to the 50% test positivity rate at the peak of the surge, Lindley said.

“There’s still a fair amount of this virus around in our community, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon said Friday.

The demand for tests is decreasing, which Lindley said is a good sign, and less people are walking into Vail Health Hospital and local urgent care clinics with COVID-19-like illness. Eagle County Public Health reported that local hospitalizations have been stable or decreasing for the last seven days straight.

“That doesn’t mean it’s down to zero but we’ve seen definitely a measurable decrease,” Lindley said.

Increased capacity to weather the storm

The most important mark of progress in combating this most recent surge is that, after a grueling few weeks, Vail Health and its subsidiary Colorado Mountain Medical are seeing more and more staff returning to work after COVID-19 infections, Lindley said.

At its peak, the surge brought “the equivalent of two 737s, fully loaded with new COVID patients coming into our community each day,” Harmon said in an interview at the start of the month.

At the same time, Vail Health had a peak of nearly 80 employees out with COVID-19 at one time, placing a great strain on hospital staffing levels and other resources.

The county uses color codes — green, yellow and red — to assess whether various sectors of essential public infrastructure have the capacity to continue operating properly amid COVID-19 surges. When omicron began rearing its head in the community on Dec. 20, the county’s “health and medical” sector was moved out of the green zone directly into the red, Harmon said.

This coding system was used to request support and resources from the state including rapid response teams for testing, staffing assistance and personal protective equipment — all of which helped the county maintain strong medical services through the surge, Harmon said.

Testing swabs are ready for use at the pop-up COVID-19 test location near the Welcome Center in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

As of Monday, Lindley said Vail Health had 43 staff out due to COVID-19 isolation — nearly half the number reported at the peak of the surge.

COVID-19 treatments like antivirals and monoclonal antibodies sent by the state remain in strong supply, Lindley said.

“We haven’t had to turn away a single patient for monoclonal antibody treatment. So, any individual in the community that meets the criteria for treatment we’ve been able to treat, which has been fantastic,” he said. “We’ve given over 350 courses of monoclonal antibodies to community members.”

Attendance at Colorado Mountain Medical’s weekly vaccine clinics has also declined, leading Lindley to believe that all county residents who want to be vaccinated have gotten the shot.

For Eagle County residents aged 16 to 19 as well as those aged 40 to 69, the county is reporting a vaccination rate of approximately 100% based on 2020 U.S. Census numbers, Harmon said. This represents residents who have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

All other age groups are reporting vaccination rates between 93% to 97% with the exception of children aged 5 to 11 years, the latest age group to be approved for vaccination, according to data provided by Harmon.

This is compared to a statewide average of just under 75% across all age groups, according to Colorado’s dashboard for vaccine data.

Strong vaccination rates and a higher level of overall health put Eagle County residents at an advantage for weathering the storm of the omicron variant, but transmission was still very high, Lindley said. It’s hard to imagine what the county’s COVID-19 metrics might have looked like if it were able to capture all of the visitors that contributed to transmission during one of the busiest times for tourism in the valley.

Los Amigos stays busy during the New Year’s holiday weekend in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“Definitely when we had all those visitors here during those two holiday weeks, there were many, many more cases per day than were reported on the county’s dashboard because essentially 50% of everybody we were testing was from out of town,” Lindley said.

“So, you can assume those numbers were probably closer to 600 local new cases per day — 500 or 600. It’s hard to know exactly … and many hospitalizations were not from Eagle County residents, they were from visitors.”

What we know and what we don’t know

For some, the unprecedented spread of omicron has brought a false sense of security — a feeling that most everyone in the community has been infected with one variant or another at this point so we must all have immunity.

While it is true that omicron brought more local infections than any other variant, the assertion that this has spread a blanket of herd immunity across the community that will endure through future surges is a fallacy, Lindley said.

It is important to understand that COVID-19 will continue to mutate as it spreads from person to person across the globe and, thus, new variants will continue to emerge, he said. Omicron happened to be more contagious and milder, but that does not mean the next variant will also present mild symptoms, he said.

“We all hope that ends up being the case but quite frankly, no one knows,” Lindley said.

We are not in a place where we should be thinking about COVID-19 like the flu as we know much less about COVID-19 and it is still proving to be more dangerous than the flu for certain demographics, Harmon said.

“All that said, I think we are moving to a place of this virus becoming more endemic as immunity continues to increase, primarily through vaccination, where we can prevent symptomatic illness and prevent spread,” Harmon said. “We should continue to see decreases in the level of severity. We should, in the future, see maybe lower peaks for future waves.”

A disease being “endemic” means that it persists within a population or an area, but has generally settled to a “relatively constant rate of occurrence.”

“Obviously, as new variants emerge…we will need to respond to the differences with each of those variants, but what we’re trying to do with vaccinations is really build that immunity for all community members,” Harmon said.

‘Now is a great time to be optimistic’

Eagle County residents should be proud of themselves and the way the community handled this latest surge, Lindley said.

“That doesn’t mean to drop all precautions and throw up our hands and celebrate that we made it through because COVID is here to stay … and omicron is still very much actively spreading in our community,” Lindley said.

“But the psychological impact of continuing to live on edge and go through our lives worrying about catching an infectious disease or, worse, giving an infectious disease to a loved one that can hurt them, is really hard for everybody,” he said. “…We have to learn to live with it in a way that is sustainable for us not only physically, taking the precautions you need to, but psychologically.”

Vail Health is fully supportive of the decision by Eagle County government to drop the county’s indoor mask mandate in schools and businesses, Lindley said.

Harmon said he is glad the county was able to navigate this latest surge such that we have the knowledge and the resources to transition away from the public health order.

“Spirits are down, people are stressed. It’s been a long haul,” Lindley said. “If we can get back to as much normalcy as possible, we know the psychological piece is going to be very beneficial.”

“Now is a great time to be optimistic, to be happy,” Lindley said. “We just got through the worst wave we’ve seen so far and things are rapidly getting better and people rallied and did the right things and we maintained our health infrastructure during that wave. We maintained in-person learning in schools and, for the most part, most businesses were able to stay open. It really was a win that the community should be proud about having gone through together.”

Eagle County Board of Health adopts updated CDC isolation and quarantine guidance

The Eagle County Board of Health convened for a special meeting on Wednesday and adopted the updated isolation and quarantine guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The update reduces the self-isolation and self-quarantine periods from 10 to 5 days if the individual wears a face covering for the duration of the 10-day period.

The public health order details the updated guidance and will be posted online. Eagle County Public Health also prepared a graphic to help clarify the guidance.

On Tuesday, Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll signed a temporary local disaster emergency declaration with the state of Colorado in response to the prevalence of the omicron variant and subsequent strain on medical providers and services countywide. The declaration is an administrative tool that helps Eagle County prioritizes securing the state and federal resources necessary to keep the medical system, response agencies and critical infrastructure operational. The Board of County Commissioners will officially consider filing the declaration on Tuesday and further discuss the measure at that time.

As disease incidence rates continue to climb, officials recommend hosting small holiday gatherings this year — and outdoors when possible. They urge community members to take a “layered” approach to effective actions. Washing hands, maintaining social distance, wearing face coverings, receiving vaccines and booster doses, undergoing testing, as well as following isolation and quarantine protocol, are still recommended as the best practices for lowering the spread of the virus.

Eagle County Public Health will continue to provide robust availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters for all eligible individuals. Public Health officials note the importance of testing when individuals have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or after being exposed to someone with the disease. Testing centers are set up throughout Eagle County, though hours and locations are subject to change. Up-to-date information about testing locations, days and times can be found at EagleCountyCovid.org.

The year in photos: A look back at 2021 through the lens of Vail Daily photographer Chris Dillmann

Oh, what a year. Feels like we achieved a little bit more normalcy than last year, but these past 12 months will still go down in the history books.

The photos I chose to represent the year 2021 were picked based on the most newsworthy premise. There were others that might have slipped through the cracks as “better photos,” but these to me were the most influential when it comes to what we experienced in this little portion of Colorado and an even smaller section of the world.

It’s hard going through and picking a select few photos when so much has happened throughout the year. Hard-hitting news like canyon closures and wildfires to powder days and kids doing cute things — they all have a place in documenting what happened in Eagle County. Behind a lens, you look at what happens in this valley differently. You also are able to see more than most do. So here’s my attempt to sum the year up through my eyes and pressing a button clicking the shutter of my camera.

The pandemic was still going strong, though the difference from 2020 is events came back. Though, they came back differently than before, whether it was limited capacity or vaccination requirements at local venues. Nonetheless, they came back. Concerts, sporting events and most things in between helped our valley come back to life.

Then there’s the weather. A lower-than-average snow season and precipitation can guarantee one thing in Colorado — wildfires and low river flows. We had one fire pretty close to home in Sylvan Lake State Park early on in the summer. Then came the rains later in the summer, which helped to prevent new fires, but aggravated the scars of old ones such as the Grizzly Creek Fire the year before. Hence, a summer marked by Interstate 70 closures in Glenwood Canyon.

The valley, like always, lost some very influential people. In-person graduations without restrictions came back and school was in session without block schedules or smaller learning pods, even if most students had to wear masks for a second year in a row.

Again, I can’t reiterate enough how hard it is to choose a select few photos to go in print that captures the year. With that said, make sure to check out the online story where you can see far more photos than what’s able to make it into the print edition.

A Kaman K-MAX helicopter fills a water bucket to fight the Sylvan Fire in June. The burn scar in the background shows how the fire moved down to Sylvan Lake at Sylvan Lake State Park in Eagle. Air operations were key to fighting the fire, which burned 3,792 acres — nearly 6 square miles.
Robert Yi teaches his daughter Sylvana, 11, of Evergreen how to fly fish in July at Piney Lake outside of Vail. The lake is a popular destination for many recreational activities.
Major roadwork begins on a destroyed portion of Interstate 70 after historic mudslides August near Glenwood Springs. Heavy rains on burn scars brought the mountain down, shutting the highway down for weeks.
First-grade teacher Monica Moreno and Zayd Hernandez work on an assignment the first day of school at Homestake Peak School in August in EagleVail. The district is requiring masks for all faculty and students.
A Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter fills up from Sylvan Lake to fight the Sylvan Fire in June outside of Eagle.
Axel, a 5-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer, gets air during the DockDogs Outdoor Big Air competition in June in Vail. The event was the kickoff for the Vail Valley Foundation's GoPro Mountain Games, which returned in full a year after being canceled dud to COVID-19 concerns.
Derek Redd exits the whiteroom in February in Beaver Creek.
Town of Vail Mayor Dave Chapin is administered a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by Vail Health nurse Elizabeth Kegode in March at Vail Hospital in Vail. Chapin came down with a bout of COVID-19 in early 2020 when Eagle County became one of the early hot spots in the pandemic.
Smoke rises in hot spots of the Sylvan Fire in June at Sylvan Lake State Park in Eagle.
Fire was one of the production aspects to the music during Powabunga Music Fesitval in December in Vail. The festival wasn't short on striking visuals.
Kai Blumenauer, 2, of EagleVail strolls the Vail Recreation District's annual Trick-or-Treat in October in Vail. Kids and adults showed up in costumes galore.
Crews work to clear Glenwood Canyon after mudslides in August between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs.
The Flynn Creek Circus performers dazzle audience members in August in Avon.
The Wailers play for the Vail Valley Foundation's Hot Summer Night concert series in August in Vail.
Town of Vail Fleet Manager Jeff Darnall explains the battery capabilities of the new town buses in April in Vail. The town had hybrid electric, but will be adding 100 percent electric running buses to the fleet.
The Battle Mountain boys hockey team celebrates its 4A state championship win with a parade in April in Eagle. The boys won the whole thing after getting in the playoffs with a wild-card spot.
Kelley Nelson of the Vail Fire Department breaks through a wall during a training exercise at the former Children’s Garden of Learning site in November in Vail. The training was to teach firefighters self rescue when they are trapped by learning how to escape a building when regular exists are blocked off.
Keb' Mo' plays the Vilar Performing Arts Center August in Beaver Creek.
Riders compete in bareback riding for the opening night of the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo in July in Eagle.
A firefighter ignites brush for a prescribed burn April in East Vail. The burn took place in the Katsos Ranch area of East Vail on approximately 20 acres of town of Vail land and 1 acre of Colorado Department of Transportation right of way. It will help regenerate the vegetation for the bighorn sheep winter range.
The aptly-named John Ramunno field stands are filled with people to pay respects to the legendary coach under the lights in August at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum. Ramunno died after a battle with cancer.
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe plays as the sun sets on Avon's Salute to the USA in July in Avon. The fireworks might have been canceled because of fire danger, but the fun went on with live music, food and entertainment.
Al Bonneau of Denver makes turns last March in Beaver Creek.
Arabella Bothwell and her best friend Anna Miller of Avon scope out the art instillations in January in Beaver Creek.
Jack Reed, 13, receives his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by Dr. David Wahl, who is retired but came to help with the vaccination clinic, in May at Vail Health Hospital in Vail.
Jaime Molina paints one of the ventilation stacks just west of the Dobson Ice Arena in June in Vail. The duo, known as "The Worst Crew," was finishing their work, "Valley Threnody.“
People line up for Covid-19 vaccines March at the Gypsum Recreation Center in Gypsum.
Aspens showcase their color in September near Minturn.
An excavator works to fill a hole in Interstate 70 after a series of mud and rock slides decimated the highway at the end of July and August in Glenwood Canyon.

Vail Health Hospital seeing young COVID-19 cases amid surge

Testing swabs are ready for use Dec. 21 at the pop-up COVID-19 test location near the Welcome Center in Vail. (Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily)

Here’s yet another thing upended by the COVID-19 virus: The common cold is no longer the most contagious respiratory virus.

Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, said that the new omicron variant of the virus is “the most contagious respiratory virus we’ve ever seen.”

That level of spread means that in the past week, Vail Health has seen almost 50% of its tests come back positive. That now includes kids younger than 5 who are not eligible for vaccines.

According to The New York Times, Pitkin County had the highest per capita COVID-19 case rate of any county in the nation Thursday, followed by Summit County. Eagle County was fourth on the list.

Given the local testing data, and case rates, Lindley said you should assume that almost 1 in 2 people are infected.

The new, rapid spread of the virus comes on top of what’s already Vail Health’s busiest period, the Christmas holidays.

Sarah Drew, Vail Health’s director of emergency and trauma services, said the hospital has treated the “occasional” pediatric patient with COVID-19 over the past two years. But on Dec. 29 alone, the emergency department saw five children younger than 5. Two of those kids were “very sick,” Drew said. One had to be transported to Denver.

Drew added that the emergency department has also seen kids with a combination of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.

Other respiratory viruses are also showing up in greater numbers than the same period in 2020. Drew noted that people a year ago were wearing masks, staying home and taking other anti-COVID-19 precautions.

Those other respiratory illnesses were all but invisible last year, she said.

Lots of patients

Lindley added that Vail Health, as of Dec. 29, had more COVID-19 hospitalizations than at any other point in 2021. Vail Health’s urgent care centers throughout the valley are seeing their highest-ever volume of patients, he added.

People wear masks as they grocery shop Wednesday, Dec. 22, in Vail.
Kelly Getchonis/For the Vail Daily

While some early research indicates the omicron variant isn’t as severe as the original COVID-19 virus and its delta variant, it’s not yet known just how hard the virus hits people. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s website notes that more research is needed to determine just how severe this fast-moving variant can be.

“A mild virus doesn’t put people in the hospital,” Lindley said. Drew added that parents don’t take their kids to the emergency department with mild symptoms.

The quick spread of the virus, even to those who have been vaccinated and boosted, has hit hard across the valley’s workforce.

Drew said that as of the morning of Dec. 30, six of her employees were out with positive tests.

That’s put even more stress on health care workers, she said.

“Everybody has seen the strain,” Drew said, adding that while Vail Health is an “amazing” place to work, “We’re not immune to the stresses of all health care workers.” That’s especially true when coworkers get sick.

Those positive tests have come even in a workforce that’s entirely vaccinated.

Lindley said while vaccines were touted by some as a way to avoid getting the disease, that was never the intent. The vaccine was designed to limit the severity of the virus.

“What we’re seeing… is the vaccine is effective at keeping you out of the hospital and keeping you alive,” Lindley said, adding that Centers for Disease Control data released this week shows that unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to end up hospitalized than those who have been vaccinated.

You can get vaccines

Vaccines are still in good supply at Vail Health, Lindley said. Those who haven’t yet received a vaccine can get one easily. And, Drew added, people can get the vaccine as soon as they feel better.

The difference is those who have monoclonal antibody treatments are advised to wait 90 days before receiving another vaccine.

While Vail Health has been administering about 12 of those intravenous treatments per day, the supply is starting to run low.

Lindley said Thursday that Vail Health has a roughly five-day supply at current use rates.

He added that there are also ample supplies of tests, but mostly rapid tests. The problem with those quick tests, particularly at-home versions, is that people often don’t use the self-tests properly.

Those tests work best if you do a deep throat test, then a nasal swab as deep as possible, he added.

While the omicron variant runs through the valley, both Lindley and Drew urged people to wear masks, stay home if they feel ill and, perhaps most important, take care of themselves by getting outside every day, eating well and not smoking.

Getting vaccinated is still important, Lindley said. So is testing at the first sign of symptoms.

For more information

For local information, go to EagleCountyCovid.org.

For other information, go to CDC.gov.

Summit County to implement mask mandate

Shoppers wear masks Aug. 10 at City Market in Breckenridge. Summit County’s newest mask mandate will be in place starting Thursday, Dec. 30. The mandate is for all indoor public spaces.
Tripp Fay/For the Summit Daily News

As of Thursday, Dec. 30, Summit County will once again have a mask mandate.

Due to skyrocketing COVID-19 case numbers, an emergency Summit County Board of Health meeting was held Wednesday, Dec. 29, to discuss a new recommendation from Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland. During that meeting, Assistant County Manager Sarah Vaine told the board that Wineland recommended a mask mandate in public indoor spaces.

According to the county’s website, the incidence rate over the past seven days was 1,828 cases per 100,000 people. The state’s incidence rate for Summit County, which is reported as more than 20,000 cases per 100,000 people, is since the beginning of the pandemic, meaning about 20% of residents have tested positive for the virus since March 2020.

Vaine kicked off the meeting in Wineland’s absence — she was reportedly on a call with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — and listed the reasons for why the county had been slow to implement such a measure thus far.

To start, Vaine noted that most exposures are coming from large, indoor gatherings. While masks are an effective tool against the virus, limiting indoor events has a bigger impact in slowing case rates. Vaine also pointed to other counties, such as Pitkin, that have had mask mandates in place for months while simultaneously reporting high case rates.

Vaine further pointed out that a mask mandate is enforced by front-facing staff, such as employees of retail shops, restaurants and bars. These are often the individuals who have to ask customers to wear a mask, and it’s these staff members who face the brunt of criticism and frustrations.

Vaine said it’s this feedback and concern that has acted as a primary factor for not reinstating a mask mandate thus far.

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said that over the past week, she’s gotten lots of feedback from community members both in support of and against a mask mandate. While she said she’s sympathetic to the extra burden a mask mandate would place on front-facing staff, she is still in support because of the surge in cases.

“Summit County and other resort communities are frequently ahead of the bell curve. … What that means is, I think, that likely in a week to 10 days, we will see the same kinds of staffing shortages we’re seeing in Summit County throughout the state,” Pogue said. “That means that while we are currently enjoying some capacity in our hospital, while we are currently enjoying some extra testing capacity that other communities may not be getting, it is likely we’re not going to see that in a week or 10 days out.”

Vaine noted that the county currently has three testing sites supplied by the Colorado Department of Public Health and that Wineland is advocating for more resources. It was noted during the meeting that wait times for a test were as long as three hours.

During the meeting, Vaine confirmed the county’s hospital capacity isn’t of concern. She said St. Anthony Summit Hospital does not have a single patient with COVID-19 but that the alarmingly fast rise in cases coupled with how much of the community’s workforce must quarantine is enough to worry public health leaders.

“When we set that, we also didn’t understand how quickly omicron would spread,” Vaine said about the county setting hospital capacity as a determining factor in implementing restrictions. “And so when we see the number of shortages of staff and the rapid spread of the virus — even though it doesn’t seem to be, at this point, as deadly or cause as critical illness as delta did — it’s still wiping out workforce in record numbers, and that’s really important to all of us,” Vaine said.

It’s because of this that Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said she was supportive of a mandate. She said the measure is meant to protect locals, some of whom have said they have tried to avoid grocery stores by ordering through curbside pickup. But because of staffing issues, this service isn’t offered, and when they go to the store, many customers are not masked.

“To me, it’s just a really commonsense approach and something we need to take to help mitigate this, even if it’s minuscule in what it does,” Lawrence said. “It also provides a level of comfort for our locals.”

Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard was in agreement with Lawrence and Pogue, and he noted that he supports public health measures that support businesses, and right now, those are measures that protect staff.

“This will allow for consistent messaging across the county,” Blanchard said. “We’ve seen some businesses that have taken on themselves by the recommendation of public health to implement mask restrictions within their own businesses, and this will allow for some consistent messaging, especially for our visitors who want to do the right thing.”

The new mandate takes effect Thursday, Dec. 30, and is only applied to public indoor spaces. Lawrence said the board would likely reconvene next week to discuss how long it’ll be in place. Vaine said the county would also have resources on its website regarding signage for businesses.

There is currently no discussion of capacity restrictions or other measures.

Omicron spreading ‘like wildfire’ as Colorado COVID hospitalizations tick up

Travelers navigate the check-in area for United Airlines in the terminal of Denver International Airport on Friday, Dec. 24, 2021, in Denver. Major airlines canceled hundreds of flights Friday amid staffing shortages largely tied to the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
David Zalubowski/A

Colorado appears to be headed into another COVID-19 surge, just four weeks after the delta-fueled wave started to break.

Hospitalizations bottomed out on Saturday, with 992 people receiving care for confirmed COVID-19. By Monday afternoon, that had risen to 1,018.

It’s not unusual for hospitalizations to rise slightly after a holiday, as people who put off seeking care start feeling sick enough that they can’t wait any longer. But given how steeply new admissions jumped in recent days, that’s probably not the only factor, said Beth Carlton, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 227 people were admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 on Monday, compared to 66 a week ago.

“Omicron has arrived in Colorado and it’s spreading like wildfire,” she said.

Denver South High School freshman Trinity …

As in previous waves, the percentage of tests coming back positive rose first, followed by new cases and hospital admissions. An average of 12.6% of COVID-19 tests back positive in the week ending Sunday — the highest rate since mid-November 2020. When the positivity rate is that high, it suggests the actual number of cases may be significantly higher than what the state has found.

Read more via The Denver Post.

Eagle County institutes indoor mask mandate to slow spread of COVID-19

Shoppers wear masks while shopping Wednesday in Vail at City Market.
Kelly Getchonis/For the Vail Daily

As of noon Wednesday, Eagle County is again under a mask mandate for indoor spaces.

The Eagle County Board of Commissioners, acting as the board of health, issued the mandate in reaction to the omicron variant COVID-19 surge that has hit the community hard during the past week. Eagle County’s incident rate is currently the highest in the state.

On Dec. 20, 185 new cases were reported, and Tuesday added another 111 cases. Those numbers are likely to grow as more test results become available. As of Wednesday morning, the incident rate of COVID-19 in Eagle County is 1,000 per 100,000 of population — the highest it has been since the beginning of the pandemic. In comparison, on Dec. 13, the local incidence rate was 210 per 100,000.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For info about COVID-19 testing and vaccination resources, visit EagleCountyCovid.org.

Highliine Medical Solutions also offers testing at HighlineCovidTesting.com.

“This is a necessary precaution for our community to slow down ongoing transmission,” said Heath Harmon, director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, during Wednesday’s special meeting.

The news of the new mandate was anticipated. At Tuesday’s Vail Town Council evening meeting, Town Manager Scott Robson said town officials were already preparing for the new public health order.

Robson said he’d been working with the town’s public information staff on ways to get word out to the public. That information will be posted on outdoor sandwich boards, as well as the town’s electronic message signs.

Robson added that the town is modifying its operating protocols for its roughly 350 employees. Those who can work remotely are encouraged to do so. Those who can’t work remotely, including street maintenance crews, firefighters and police, are being asked to work in small groups to keep any possible infection points as small as possible.

Robson also told council members that Eagle County and state officials have been working to increase the number of vaccination and testing sites around the county.

In Eagle, Vail Health has opened a new testing site at the old Burger King located at the northwest corner of the town’s Interstate 70 Interchange. A bus providing vaccines and boosters is expected to be in Vail as early as Wednesday.

Sudden spike

The omicron spike is putting pressure on Vail Health capacity, COVID-19 testing sites and the local work force, Harmon noted. He said the surge began late last week.

Testing swabs are ready for use at the pop-up COVID-19 test location near the Welcome Center in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

In a news release issued Wednesday morning, Eagle County noted “due to the high disease incidence rate, the county’s medical infrastructure is at serious risk of being unable to accommodate individuals seeking medical care, whether due to COVID-19 related illness or other needs requiring hospitalization.” The county release stated that local medical providers report staff shortages, increased hospitalization and a doubling of emergency department visits from this time last year.

“Medical providers have appealed to the state for additional registered nurses, vaccine resources and testing capacity, and those resources are being deployed,” the release states.

During the special board of health meeting, Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health, reported that 22 staff members at the hospital are out with COVID-19. He said the majority of those cases involve members of the hospital’s nursing staff. In response to Vail Health’s request for assistance, 18 nurses are being deployed to the hospital, Lindley said.

Lindley noted the hospital has seen 280 new COVID-19 cases during the past 24 hours — a number that reflects both residents and visitors. That’s another issue fueling the surge, Lindley noted.

“Right now, Vail has close to 100,000 visitors,” Lindley said.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do this (institute a mask mandate) is to meet the needs of the community and the visitors,” said Harmon.

One tool

As they discussed instituting the mask mandate — part of a public health order that will run through Jan. 17 — county and public health officials noted it is one tool to combat the latest COVID-19 surge.

“There is not a magic bullet to prevent all possibility of transmission. We are looking at what is most effective,” Harmon said.

Vaccination and booster shots are the most effective tools, he noted. After that, Harmon said, face coverings are the next best option — “what is really key for us is slowing down the spread,” he said.

Harmon added it is still too soon to predict the severity of the latest surge. Typically, hospitalizations are a lagging indicator, but the sheer numbers from the omicron variant are concerning for local health providers.

“Even if omicron is 50% less severe … but if it is twice as as transmittable, at the end of the day it is a wash,” Harmon said.

Harmon said he has received requests from business owners asking for a mandate on face coverings. Many of those requests detailed the struggles businesses are experiencing because of absenteeism. As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, once an individual receives a COVID-19 diagnosis, a 10-day quarantine is recommended.

There was community pushback against a mask mandate at Wednesday’s meeting. The speakers questioned the effectiveness of face coverings in preventing COVID-19 spread.

“What is this really going to do?” asked Grant Smith of Edwards. “This is going to hurt businesses. It’s going to hurt families. It’s going to hurt children.”

“We need to start to focusing on the real things that are affecting our community,” he added, noting that mental health issues, pandemic fatigue and overall wellness are the real concerns, and those issues will not be solved by a mask mandate.

“I think there are business owners who are very opposed to this, and there are business owners that I have talked to in the past few days who are very much in favor of this,” said Chris Romer, executive director of the Vail Valley Partnership.

Romer urged the county to amp up its business communication efforts as it institutes a mask mandate, noting that otherwise, front-line workers end up acting as the mask police.

“It’s very hard to be that,” Romer said.

Unanimous approval

“I am in support of moving forward with this public health order, not because I think that everyone wearing masks outside of their homes will solve the problem,” offered Commissioner Matt Scherr. “But, this is simply the best we can do with the data we have.”

“We are trying to make decisions based on the data,” Scherr continued. “We are doing this as a community, and we will always have some people who disagree with this approach.”

“There are all types of measures that can be taken, and a mask order is one,” said Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney. “We are trying to find a balance. It is not an easy decision, and I really wish we were in a different place.”

Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry noted that Eagle County hoped to be out of the public health order business by now.

“This is not about power or control. It is not about freedom or religion. It is about finding out what tools are available to keep our community safe,” she said. “I think this tool is something we can do together. We are not fighting each other. We are battling this virus.”

The new public health order and be viewed on the Eagle County website.

Scott Miller contributed reporting from Vail.

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Eagle County eyes indoor mask mandate as local COVID-19 cases skyrocket

The Eagle County Board of Commissioners have scheduled a special board of health meeting Wednesday to discuss how to respond to surging COVID-19 case numbers. One of the options for discussion will be a countywide mask mandate.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

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.

A Mako Medical employee administers a nasal swab COVID-19 test at a pop-up testing location Tuesday outside the Transportation Center in Vail. The site will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day as needed. It will be closed Christmas Day and New Years Day, as well as shortened hours Christmas Eve from 8 a.m. to noon.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“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.”

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.”

Unprecedented spread

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.”

Workforce hit

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.

Omicron lands in Pitkin County after Mexico traveler tests positive

Omicron officially has arrived in Pitkin County.

The county’s Public Health Department said in a news release it was notified Monday “that a vaccinated individual tested positive for the COVID-19 omicron variant.”

“There are now six confirmed cases of the variant in the state,” according to the release. “Although the recent Garfield County (omicron) case did not have any recent travel, the individual from Pitkin County had traveled, similarly to the initial cases detected in early December.”

The Pitkin County resident recently traveled to Mexico, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.

Omicron was first identified in Colorado in an Arapahoe County resident who had recently traveled to South Africa and has been detected in Boulder County’s wastewater, suggesting community transmission. After Garfield County announced its first case last week, Pitkin County’s public health director said the variant was likely already here.

On Monday, Vance confirmed public health officials were ready for omicron.

“We anticipated that it was only a matter of time before we would see the omicron variant in our county,” he said in the news release. “Although the delta variant still currently accounts for most cases in Pitkin County and Colorado, research suggests that the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant and will likely become the predominant variant circulating in Pitkin County in the next several weeks.”

Pitkin County and Colorado’s public health department are jointly monitoring the spread of omicron locally and statewide. Local health workers talk with everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and conduct contact tracing in an effort to slow local transmission, Vance said.

After a post-Thanksgiving lull in COVID-19 cases, Pitkin County’s incidence rate of the virus has doubled in the past week, Vance said. Data from weekend cases was scheduled to post online Monday night and was not available earlier Monday.

“Public Health encourages everyone experiencing any symptoms to get tested, particularly before spending time with friends and family,” according to Monday’s release.

Vaccines and boosters provide the best protection against infection and against severe disease and death in the event of breakthrough cases, which have been common, according to public health officials. Preliminary research indicates that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “work against omicron,” Vance said.

“Those who received two doses of Moderna or Pfizer should get another dose of Moderna or Pfizer,” he said. “And similarly, those who received a (Johnson & Johnson) dose should get a Moderna or Pfizer booster.”

Go to Covid19.pitkincounty.com for information on testing, vaccines and boosters, as well as local data.