STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County COVID-19 cases exploded last week with 64 additional confirmed, more than doubling the previous record and leading to new hospitalizations.
Before state health officials could prompt the move, the Routt County Board of Commissioners moved the county into Level Orange, previously known as Level 3. This reduces capacity at retail stores, offices, restaurants, places of worship and other indoor events to 25% capacity, half of what it was previously.
After resisting placing further restrictions on social gatherings and businesses for weeks, commissioners now have expanded restrictions twice within a week hoping to curb the virus, save the ski season set to start in less than two weeks and prevent the local economy from being “left in tatters.”
“I think this is obvious that it needs to be done,” Commissioner Beth Melton said about the move to Level Orange. “There is no question that further restrictions are problematic for our businesses, and there is also no question that the level of disease prevalence in our community is unacceptable.”
The county’s two-week total surged to 90 cases, above any level on the state’s Safer at Home plan. Instead, the level actually puts Routt County within the state’s Stay at Home metrics. Much of the state is in the same position as over half of counties have two-week incidence rates that would put them within the strictest level on the dial. No county has yet moved to the Stay at Home level.
Commissioners also are considering further restrictive measures, especially considering that Level Orange still allows for indoor gatherings of 50 people.
“Personally, I am beyond just relying on the good will of our residents to avoid those kinds of gatherings,” Melton said. “I think we need a clear and decisive message in the form of this public health order.”
Level Orange restrictions will officially go into place at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Another meeting is scheduled for Friday to enact another public health order, which could go beyond the state’s restrictions.
“It may be allowed, but that doesn’t make it a good idea,” Melton said referring to some larger events planned in the area. “At some point, it needs to not be allowed if we are going to send the right message to our community.”
The growth of cases was described as “exponential” by county public health officials with them stressing it will still take weeks for measures put in place to show an effect in COVID-19 data.
“Once you reach exponential growth, you have to severely change your behavior to see that stop,” said Nicole Harty, Routt County epidemiologist. “If we were to all completely stop going anywhere, interacting with anyone today, we wouldn’t realize that impact for a little bit of time.”
Harty said she anticipates cases to continue, and fellow epidemiologist Fritha Morrison said the impact of measures taken now would not be reflected in case data until December.
To put it in perspective, Harty pointed out that after new data was added to charts of weekly case totals on the county’s dashboard, all other weeks look small.
“The disease is percolating through our community now. It is affecting all age groups, various businesses sectors, numerous social activities. Infections are happening at work, at play, at home; it is everywhere,” said Routt County Public Health Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington. “Nobody is immune from this in our community.”
There were four new local hospitalizations this week, two from patients who do not live in Routt County. UCHealth is currently treating 60 patients with COVID-19 in its northern Colorado region, an increase of 10 cases since Friday. In the whole system, 262 patients are being cared for as of Tuesday morning, one below the peak of hospitalizations reached in April.
Much of the virus spread has been within businesses, with about 36% of outbreaks traced back to them since Sept. 1. Health officials said they are seeing transmission of cases in the workplace between employees.
About 27% of cases since the beginning of September have been traced back to personal gatherings and 18% have been connected to restaurants.
But health officials stressed that outbreaks because of personal gatherings have led to more individual cases than any other outbreak type. A now notorious Halloween party led to several new cases at Steamboat Springs High School, forcing students and staff to transition to online instruction.
“Teenagers, don’t go to parties,” Harty said pointing out a rise in cases among teens and directly connecting it to gatherings in recent weeks.
The test positivity rate has ballooned to over 5%, meaning one in every 20 people tested in Routt County is receiving a positive test result. Positivity rate is not affected by increased testing, according to health officials.
Routt County also will refuse COVID-19 tests if the purpose for the test is to travel. Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith stressed that people should not be traveling right now anyway. There is, however, no official order restricting travel.
Commissioners once again pleaded with residents, some of whom tuned into Tuesday’s public health board meeting online, that without immediate changes the new cases will only climb higher and lead to more restrictions, potentially upending the ski season.
Smith suggested the county use its messaging system, and potentially its reverse 911 system, to directly reach out to residents to update them on the seriousness of the virus and changes in restrictions. A text alert was sent out to those who subscribe to alerts Tuesday afternoon. Sign up for alerts at routtcountyalerts.com.
“That is what it is there for — to alert people to an emergency,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “I think this qualifies as an emergency.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.