Pitkin County health officials press state for COVID-19 visitor requirements

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Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Arriving passengers gather their baggage at the carousel in the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport on Friday, May 1, 2020. Pitkin County is asking the state of Colorado to implement visitor regulations this winter including requiring a recent negative COVID-19 test or a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

Pitkin County public health officials are asking the state of Colorado to require visitors this winter season to either show up with a recent negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

A letter sent last week to Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by the Pitkin County Board of Health — which is made up of elected officials and appointed health experts — says that Colorado should have a “comprehensive statewide approach to visitor requirements,” also including an education campaign and health declaration forms certifying that travelers are not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.

The two-page letter notes that tourists from all over the world come to enjoy the recreational and cultural amenities offered by Aspen and other Colorado destinations and that “tourism is a mainstay of the local economy.”

“However, COVID-19 poses a fundamental challenge to our community, particularly as we seek to protect the health and safety of Pitkin County residents with the potential mass influx of eager winter visitors,” says the letter, signed by 11 members of the county’s board of health. 

The letter notes that 15 states have enacted statewide visitor recommendations. It holds up the state of Maine as an example to follow.

“Currently maintaining the lowest positivity rate (0.60%) in our country, Maine’s multilayered approach to protect residents and tourists amidst COVID-19 has proven to be invaluable,” the letter says. “Keep Maine Healthy relies on three cornerstones: 1) testing for the virus that encourages visitors to ‘know before you go’; 2) screening for symptoms among travelers; and 3) engaging communities to promote COVID-19 prevention best practices and public health education.” 

Colorado public health officials released a statement in response to the letter saying they “applaud Pitkin County’s continued commitment to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of their community.” However, “we do not have any immediate plans to implement travel restrictions or quarantine mandates,” according to an email from an official with the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which coordinates public information as it relates to the state’s COVID-19 response. “We are closely monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and will make decisions based on what best protects public health.” 

The statement notes that state policies “empower counties to establish restrictions based on disease transmission, positivity rate and hospitalizations within their communities.”

The state as of Monday has “not received similar requests (from other local jurisdictions) to implement a statewide travel advisory/quarantine order,” according to the statement.

State officials are at work building a set of guidelines for ski areas to follow to limit the spread of COVID-19. In an interview last week with The Aspen Times, Gov. Polis said the guidelines “will help the ski industry flourish and stay safe.” 

“And the two go hand-in-hand,” Polis said. “The minute the virus goes out of control and there is an outbreak, not only would it be devastating to the lives of residents but it scares away visitors from across the country.” 

Polis noted that COVID-19 risk factors are associated with “the party experience in town” more than the outdoor activity of skiing and snowboarding.

“It’s about the après-ski, it’s about dining, it’s about how we can have restaurants serve people in a safe way. It’s about chokepoints like rental places and lift lines. But they’re very solvable and the ski resorts are doing a great job coming up with those protocols to make sure that’s done in a safe way,” Polis said.

With those many aspects of a successful ski-town economy in mind, Pitkin County is calling for a statewide approach that includes “visitor education, 10-day isolation and symptom free before travel, health screenings, health declaration forms; and either have a recent negative COVID-19 test, or maintain compliance with a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.” 

“On behalf of our community, we call on you to continue to make Colorado safer for all who cherish it,” the letter says.

The board of health has been discussing potential strategies to deal with the expected surge of winter visitors at least since August. At a meeting Sept. 17, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, who participates in the board’s meetings, cautioned that a policy calling for a mandatory 14-day quarantine with no exceptions “can have a chilling effect on tourism.” Providing an “out” — such as proof of a negative test result within the past 72 hours or a health declaration form — would have a less chilling impact on tourist demand, he said.

Peacock on Sept. 3 told the board of a recent family trip to New England to drop a child off at college. Massachusetts, where the family was staying, has a requirement calling for visitors to show up with a negative test within the past 72 hours or face a 14-day quarantine. Visitors also are required to fill out an online health declaration form, attesting that they have been screened for COVID-19 and are not experiencing symptoms. Peacock’s family stopped at a Colorado Springs community testing facility on their drive east and received word of their negative results while they were on the road, Peacock said. 

Karen Koenemann, Pitkin County’s public health director, told the board Sept. 3 that some strategies are better implemented at the state level as opposed to local level. While local officials could build their own education campaigns, anything involving more resource-intensive policies such as screening incoming travelers should be supported by statewide resources, she said.

She added Sept. 17, when the board signed off on the drafting of the letter, that she did not “feel a high appetite to sign onto the letter right now” from other counties sharing Pitkin’s challenges with winter visitors, but that once the letter was drafted, she would try again to get more support from other jurisdictions.

Torre, Aspen’s mayor and a health board member, said Sept. 3 that he hoped the letter “would be, more than anything, a good conversation starter” and that he had reservations about pushing for a strict 14-day quarantine policy.

Polis, in The Aspen Times interview, said the state is increasingly trying to “localize” the response to the virus.

“That means empowering commissioners, county health departments,” the governor said in an interview. “We’ve really moved from even the very early days from ‘one size fits all’ statewide solutions because there are 64 counties in Colorado, and even within each county there’s different conditions for instance in a major metropolitan area and an unincorporated area.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who also sits on the board of health, said that a county-by-county approach to regulations governing ski travelers may fall short, particularly since many skiers visit more than one destination. He said he supported the board of health’s call for a “uniform set of standards.”

“That was the intent of this, to create a little bit of normalcy,” he said.

Olivia Emmer/Aspen Journalism

Skiers ride the Summit Express lift at Buttermilk Ski Resort while jets at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport prepare for takeoff. A statewide conversation is underway on how to best mitigate for COVID-19 among travelers heading to Colorado this winter.

Out-of-jurisdiction cases growing in proportion to local infections

Underscoring Pitkin County’s calls for statewide action regarding visitor requirements is the growing proportion of so-called “out-of-jurisdiction” COVID-19 cases, in comparison to cases counted among the local population. An out-of jurisdiction case refers to a visitor or a commuter from outside the county who tests positive here.

As of Friday, Pitkin County was reporting 217 COVID-19 cases among county residents — a number that does not include out-of-jurisdiction cases. County data shared with Aspen Journalism shows an additional 78 out-of-jurisdiction cases since July 10, which is when local officials began tracking the number. Since July 10, Pitkin County has seen 93 local cases, according to Aspen Journalism’s tracking the curve project, meaning out-of-jurisdiction cases have made up 45% of the cases that test positive here in that timeframe. Those numbers also do not account for anyone who may have contracted the virus or fallen ill here, but is tested in another jurisdiction.

Out-of-jurisdiction cases include Eagle and Garfield county residents who test positive here, most of whom are likely working in Pitkin County. County data show that 30 of the 78 out-of-jurisdiction cases since July 10 are from Eagle and Garfield county residents. 

An analysis of the out-of-jurisdiction numbers as of Aug. 5 showed that they made up roughly 37% of the total cases that tested positive in the county between July 10 and Aug. 5. 

The proportion of out-of-jurisdiction cases began growing in late August and early September, county epidemiologist Josh Vance told the board of health Sept. 17. As of Monday, over the prior 14 days, there had been 16 local cases and 23 out-of-jurisdiction cases, according to Pitkin County’s coronameter, putting the proportion of recent out-of-jurisdiction cases as 58%.

Vance linked much of the growth in out-of-jurisdiction cases to Labor Day weekend and said the disease investigation team had identified two outbreaks among groups of travelers responsible for at least eight cases, with many more being watched for symptoms. In general, the community — locals and visitors — has seen an increase in virus activity since the end of August.

Since the middle of the month, additional drivers of out-of-jurisdiction cases include an outbreak at the University of Colorado-Boulder, a cluster of cases linked to a few businesses in Pitkin County, and several cases of community spread, Vance wrote in an email.

“(The out-of-jurisdiction cases) are not going to be counted in our numbers but it is taking up a lot of our time to make sure we can mitigate that and prevent the spread,” Vance told the board.

The increased activity has put pressure both on community testing capacity and Aspen Valley Hospital’s emergency department, which is now averaging more than six COVID-19-related visits per day. That bumped the hospital’s status, as of Monday, up from “comfortable” to “cautious,” according to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 statistics tracker.

Peacock, the county manager, said that Pitkin County faces the challenge of having to manage a much larger “effective population” than what is indicated by the U.S. Census-reported count of year-round residents, which stands at 17,767.

Using numbers tracking total jobs in the county, daily commuters, second-home owners and short-term lodging units and their occupancy, Peacock told the board Sept. 17 that the county’s peak population in 2018 — experienced during the handful of busiest days per year around Christmas and the Fourth of July — was 53,062. 

Estimating that this winter will be down between 4% to 20%, compared with 2018, Peacock said the effective peak population Pitkin County needs to be prepared to manage will be between 44,382 and 50,945 people.

“The population that we are actually working with — in terms of testing, case investigation, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine and capacity — is a much larger population than (the year-round number). More than double the census population in terms of the capacities that we are dealing with, and also how the success of our efforts should probably be measured,” he said.

Koenemann said her office has heard from local businesses that were caught off-guard by the volume of Labor Day weekend visitors, which is something to keep in mind for the winter. 

“They just didn’t expect the number of people they saw over Labor Day holiday,” Koenemann said. “There was perception that we would see a downturn in folks coming to the community but that is not necessarily what they experienced over Labor Day.”

This story ran in the Sept. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

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