The outbreak follows news this week of four confirmed cases of two COVID variants in Pitkin County. Called “variants of concern,” the newer strains are estimated to be 30-70% more contagious than the previously circulating variant — referred to in the medical community as the “wild-type virus,” Pitkin County epidemiologist Josh Vance said Friday.
“The [impact] is huge, no doubt” Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh said Friday of the number of students and teachers in quarantine.
At Aspen Elementary School — which has largely been able to remain open to in-person learning, in contrast to the middle and high schools — three students and three teachers confirmed positive for COVID. Of those six cases, two — one teacher and one student — are suspected to be the newer variant of concern that originated in the U.K., Baugh said Friday. That incident led to 25 students in quarantine.
“We have not seen much transmission among elementary school students,” the superintendent said. “One of the concerning factors about the variants [of concern] is that they are more transmittable.”
Asked how the child was faring, Baugh said, “My understanding was that the student had a serious case but is doing much better.”
At Aspen Middle School, one student tested positive for a COVID variant of concern and exposed 42 other students and three to four teachers, Baugh said. One teacher at Aspen High School tested positive for the wild-type virus of COVID, but zero students “that we know of,” he continued.
Baugh said Friday he believes the outbreak is less related to the variant of concerns’ increased contagion, but rather a result of laxed attitudes.
“People are relaxing. People are letting their guard down. That’s my biggest concern … and I think this is more of that than it is the variant versus the wild-type,” he said. “I would look to that as a greater cause, because people are starting to get their shots, so they start relaxing, they’ve got the first shot, and they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m good.’ You’re not good yet.”
While Baugh could not quantify exactly how many or what percentage of the district staff have received the COVID vaccine, citing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (more commonly known as HIPPA) protections, he offered: “We know everyone who has wanted the vaccine have been able to get their vaccine. People who opt out, we don’t know. We don’t get to keep track of that.”
Aspen School District Human Resources Director Dan Blumberg in a recent phone interview said “the majority of staff have received the vaccine,” which Blaugh confirmed.
‘We do anticipate an uptick in cases’
With an emergence in the new variants of concern, spring break coming up, an uptick in tourism and more people receiving the COVID vaccine, county officials are expecting an increase in incidence rates locally.
“When you look at national guidance and you look at conversations that are occurring at the state, local and national levels, with spring break coming, we do anticipate an uptick in cases. How much that is, I think, is the piece that we’re all trying to understand,” Pitkin County Environmental Health Manager Kurt Dahl said Friday. “I know our numbers were rapidly declining and have recently plateaued and gone back up even a little, although they’re still in that yellow range … so that’s part of the reason we’re trying to be really aggressive.”
Vance echoed: “As we see travel, movement and mobility increase, in the past we’ve seen that correlate with an increase in the number of cases. We do expect to see a bump in cases; it’s anyone’s guess how big that bump will be. But I think we do definitely expect that, just with all the activity and especially news of all the gatherings that have been occurring and [anticipating] spring break.”
Dahl said the county is continuing its education efforts to visitors from all over the country — and especially those where mask-mandates have been lifted.
As far as the schools are concerned, Dahl said the county communicates with the local districts weekly, including Friday, and helps coordinate regular testing.
“We had already been discussing offering testing for students who traveled during spring break upon their return,” Dahl said, “and obviously that’s in addition to what’s going on today.”
Erica Robbie is the editor-in-chief of Local Magazine and Local Weekly as well as the arts & culture editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @.