The Chaffee Board of Health (BOH), during an intense session on Wednesday afternoon, voted 3-0 to maintain its current event cap of 5,000 people, put in place only 30 days ago. The motion made by Commissioner Greg Felt was seconded by Commissioner Keith Baker.
In making their decision Felt indicated that the Board of Health (in Colorado this is a dual role with the role of County Commissioners) demonstrated their strong support for the Chaffee County Public Health Department (CCPH), which has successfully guided the county through long pandemic months. It accomplished a rarity in Colorado: a school year of in-person learning for the county’s children when other school districts were entirely remote.
The unanimous vote was a surprise, especially since Commissioner Rusty Granzella, citing Front Range area massive events at Coors Field and Red Rocks, and a formula based on the governor’s recent announcement that 70 percent of eligible Coloradans have been vaccinated, made an earlier motion to raise the cap to 12,458. It died for lack of a second.
The second vote was called after an additional intense conversation. The three demonstrated that they could work across party lines (the BOH is comprised of one Republican, one Democrat, and one Unaffiliated commissioner) and made a joint decision.
The decision again points out how the Chaffee Board of Health has bucked the growing trend across the country and the state of Colorado, which appear to have thrown open counties for massive events of unvaccinated people. This despite the fact that the country and the state remain in a precarious condition with a pandemic that is not yet vanquished and a growing threat of the particularly virulent Delta strain. While the state may have reached a 70 percent vaccination rate, the levels of vaccination are highly uneven across the state: Chaffee stands at 62.4 percent, a figure that has budged little in the past 30 days.
The county is dealing with a contentious event permit application for Labor Day weekend, by music promoter Live Nation (joined now by their nonprofit partner, KHEN Radio) for the proposed Seven Peaks Music Festival. That event application requested an event size of upward of 20,000 attendees. The promoter is reported to have already sold 7,000 tickets to an event that is not approved; a number exceeding the county’s event size capacity.
The news is already being greeted with mixed emotions. The current event cap of 5,000 was put in place only 30 days ago; a 250 percent increase from the county’s prior cap of 2,000. Felt reminded the attendees that the county’s public health order requires a monthly meeting regarding the COVID-19 public health order, and the Wednesday meeting was not held because the Live Nation application is outstanding.
“We are still very much in a pandemic. People are hospitalized and are dying from COVID-19. We’re seeing this trend with the unvaccinated. Locally we are seeing a steady stream of positives, mainly unvaccinated people,” said Chaffee County Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom. “We’ve had seven new positives in the past seven days, and 18 in the past two weeks. These cases are more and more complicated due to the various levels of activities… Society has opened up, and we’re seeing varying levels of cooperation.”
“Some people truly believe that this pandemic is over,” she added. “They are shocked when they hear from us [after testing] and we tell them to quarantine. Statewide there is a plateau in all metrics. Although we did reach the 70 percent by July 4th there is a drastic difference between counties right now. It is VERY clear there are some counties completely opposed to this vaccine. No surprise, the counties with the largest number of outbreaks and complex cases are those with the lower vaccination rates.”
Carlstrom pointed out that from a public health perspective, the Delta variant is winning; 80 percent of samples in the system are now Delta. The variant is 50 percent more transmissible and more virulent. Carlstrom added that studies in Israel indicate that current vaccines might be less effective against it than against earlier variants. “From 60 to 90 percent is a huge gap … Up until this Delta variant we were seeing 90-93 percent effectiveness.”
Among the biggest worries; the country has yet to have a vaccine for our youngest – children 11 and under. “Yes, other counties, and states are opening up, but that doesn’t mean we need to,” said Carlstrom, who urged the BOH to stay the course on the local public health order. “We must prioritize the health and wellness of our precious valley. What is our return on investment as we add more activities with less restrictions? What is the value of large-scale events? What is the local value? How do our decisions support our event planners, so they have guardrails for safe events, but we protect our local assets, including our local responders?”
Commissioners were thoughtful and asked several questions of CCPH. They considered the difference between travel outside the county, versus bringing massive numbers of people to the valley to a single event. They discussed close contact with high-risk and vulnerable populations. They discussed the difference and possibility of holding a fully-vaccinated event, versus a large event where vaccination rates aren’t known.
“I have no desire to bring Coors field here, but Chaffee County is going to these already,” said Commissioner Granzella. “That’s why I asked where these infections are coming from…..you mentioned travel… the events are happening, and we’re not able to really tie it down … I see recovery as economic, and healing, and it takes more than continuing isolation …. I’m working with the numbers as much as I can, that make sense to me.”
“It’s like sitting between two stools if you look at the current trends, “said Commissioner Baker. “First [close to] 70 percent nationwide … but the number of people totally vaccinated is 46 percent. One of the things that concerns me is these states adjacent to us are among the worst states for vaccinations … if you look at the state vaccination doses per 100,000 people, we are one of the worst.. on a per capita basis we are not doing that well in the U.S. It might be an unpopular opinion, but we have to get the thing under control. I’m reluctant to be complicit in helping extend the lifespan of this virus.”
“Last year as we came out of the stay-at-home order and worked to reopen businesses and keep construction going, once we stabilized on that, we turned our attention to the schools; how to create a scenario so they could be successful,” said Felt. “Most on this call know this county … we achieved in-person learning all year. Compared to the rest of the country we did a fantastic job. It was a rallying point for us … we’re six weeks out from opening schools now.”
Felt asked Carlstrom about the data necessary for requiring vaccinations for major events. She answered, “Anything is possible with the tools we do have. We’ll want to take into account the source of proving someone is fully vaccinated.”
But Baker pointed out that while that information might be available in Colorado, neighboring states might not have the systems. He added that just because other states or counties are wide open, doesn’t mean that Chaffee County has to.
Granzella responded that “We can’t legislate individual action. That’s where I am right now.”
Felt reminded the meeting that the vote to raise the county’s event size cap from 2,000 to 5,000 only 30 days ago was not unanimous (He voted against it). “It’s been 30 days. Have there been any significant changes?
Carlstrom responded saying, “I wish I could be the bearer of positivity, but I can’t provide that. We have the variant; it has me concerned … We’re not in a place where I can say we have gotten to that point where we are safe and secure….will that change in a month? It’s anyone’s guess. Right now, we’re where we were last summer at this time. But then we had restrictions, we were wearing masks, working remotely. I can only hope those who are vaccinated enjoy the freedom and those who aren’t vaccinated, think twice.”
“When I came into this today, my intention was that I didn’t feel it was time to open up, but I did have the thought I was willing to consider raising the event sizes for fully-vaccinated events,” said Felt. He added that the feedback he received solidified his decision that it is not yet safe to do open for unvaccinated events of such size.
The current public health order runs through Aug. 31, 2021, and that order specifies that the Board of Health will meet monthly to review it.