Gunnison County to hold weekly COVID-19 status update meetings

From the sprint to the marathon

By Katherine Nettles and Mark Reaman

In the ever-evolving Gunnison County coronavirus situation, two more people have been hospitalized in Gunnison as a result of the virus and two have been transferred to other medical facilities. Those stats were current as of Thursday afternoon. According to public information officer Andrew Sandstrom, the county has added a column to the “By the Numbers” spreadsheet on its website with the number of beds occupied and then patients that have been transported out of the county.

“We are asking people NOT to go to the hospital unannounced,” he emphasized Thursday afternoon. “If it is an emergency call 911. We are trying to grapple with all of the self-submission forms, HHS outreach etc., to plan for a surge of local patients impacted by the COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, the Gunnison County commissioners have established an ongoing Thursday afternoon meeting to specifically handle items related to the county’s COVID-19 response in a public forum, and held their first of these today, March 19. In a brief special meeting at 4 p.m., commissioners passed a resolution to amend emergency and disaster management procedures, allowing for more nimble decision making. Immediately following was a work session to discuss an upcoming economic task force; ongoing efforts to get federal employees involved in the COVID-19 response; and RTA and airport changes.

The resolution for emergency and disaster management procedures was essentially a housekeeping item, to update the previous one first established in 2008 with minor amendments in 2013 and 2017. The newest form ensures that emergency and disaster operations can be run parallel to “normal day-today functions” of government, and that personnel and resources are assigned appropriately based on experience and regular duties. It also organizes phases of emergency management into “preparedness,” “response” “recovery,” and “mitigation.” Last, the newest resolution ensures that emergency meetings are called with as much public notice and public access as possible given the circumstances, and any actions taken are to be later ratified in a public forum.

The county will now keep a regularly scheduled Thursday meeting at 4 p.m. to discuss COVID responses, and the teleconference application Zoom will allow members of the public to join the meeting. The link will be posted on the county website.

“We have regular meetings and work schedules, for the business of the county…We will be setting this hour aside going forward, in full view of the public, to work on the COVID business,” explained commissioner Jonathan Houck. The general format of these Thursday afternoon meetings will be to discuss outreach, concerns, and public health, he said. If needed, they will be cancelled.

Commissioner John Messner commended “The amazing response that has occurred over the last week as we’ve addressed this public health crisis.” He said he believes a lot of the work they are doing is being replicated around the state, in a testament to the value of Gunnison County’s structure.

The next step, said Messner, is looking at how to develop policies to support local employers. The county is standing up a new task force on Friday, March 20 to work on this. Some current information on economic resources is now posted on the county COVID website, and Messner said the task force is “hoping to engage the business community, open lines of communication” about what resources are available and develop industry specific resource groups. That effort kicks off at 4 p.m. Friday.

“The message that I’m hearing right now is that while we’ve taken very, very strong steps beginning to address this [COVID outbreak] we are still in the very early stages,” said Messner.

Commissioner Roland Mason gave an update on county ground transportation and the airlines serving Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport. “It’s going to be very difficult for the transportation process. We decided as a board to continue to run our regular winter schedule…that was changed today,” he said. There were so few riders that RTA board decided to move to its fall/spring schedule with 13 trips per day. Mountain Express has stopped all service.

“We are only running the RTA for essential workers to get to where they are going. We highly encourage only essential workers to ride,” said Messner. He also noted that airlines are not to be used for tourists to come into the valley and are only running for tourists to leave the valley and get home. He predicted that there would only be one flight per day for a while.

Mason said there had been a lot of cancelled flights today, because of the snowstorm.

Overall, Houck said the feeling among those working on this state of emergency is that, “This is a marathon, but we all started sprinting. It’s time to settle in…” he said.

The county and many others in the state are hoping to get federal agency employees, such as those employed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, formally assigned as temporary members of the emergency command. These workers already have high level training in incident command systems and could be an asset, noted Houck. Senator Bennett signed the request along with several others, and it is now in the hands of the Secretary of the Interior and Agriculture. “Especially in a rural community these people already live here, they don’t have to be deployed…they just simply need that permission to take their skills and go to work,” at incident command, he said. “It’s a little frustrating, the bureaucracy involved in it, but Senator Bennett is committed to pushing it until he gets his answer.”

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