County bought time with health orders; using it to find tests

We need to figure out how to reopen safely

By Mark Reaman

While it is still too early to determine when the stringent public health orders dealing with the coronavirus outbreak will be lifted, county officials are formulating trigger points to determine when it will be safe to lighten some of the restrictions.

For the most part, this comes down to testing and the ability to gather data that guides the appropriate direction. As part of that effort, local health officials are partnering with a California-based laboratory to help validate a potential antibody testing kit.

“Joni [Reynolds] is thinking ahead and knows we can’t be closed down forever,” said public information officer Andrew Sandstrom, referring to Gunnison County public health director Joni Reynolds, who has the authority over the public health orders.

Sandstrom cautioned, “We need to figure out how to reopen but do it so we don’t end up where we were before. We get there through better testing and Joni is working with her colleagues to see what are the best tests we can get for this community. A lot of the tests are still under validation protocol.”

Sandstrom said the whole world is trying to figure out the best testing, noting that only South Korea seems to have done it right. He said this country still does not have the same deep infrastructure. He said large companies are working quickly on tests and Gunnison County wants to get in the queue for when they are ready.

To try to get a place in front of the line, the Gunnison Valley Health Laboratory is partnering with Vibrant America Clinical Laboratories of San Carlos, Calif. Vibrant is developing a home collection kit for COVID-19 that will test for antibodies. If successful, the test will determine at what stage of the viral infection a person is and if that person carries coronavirus antibodies.

Vibrant officials said that profiling an individual’s antibody response is the only way to determine infections with few or no symptoms.

According to GVH, this information will provide significant research to improve testing methodologies, so the intent is to utilize people in Gunnison County who have already been tested.

GVH and Vibrant are seeking 50 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, and 30 to 40 patients who have tested negative for COVID-19. You must be 14 days from your swab collection if you tested positive.

Anyone who could still be infectious will not be tested.

This study is free to participants. To take part in the validation study, call the GVH Laboratory to schedule a collection, or the GVH Laboratory may reach out to you. The lab will be collecting every day of the week from 8 to 11 a.m. until the study is complete.

GVH Laboratory manager Tina Wilson said participating in the test of the test “is a great opportunity to aid in the development of accurate antibody testing kits, so patients do not have to leave their residence.”

“The state is turning around testing results faster, so we have fewer tests that are pending,” Sandstrom said. “Nevertheless, while we would love to test everyone in the county, the current available testing doesn’t make that feasible right now. We did sign up for the Bio Bot testing. That will monitor wastewater in the county and give us a sense of the magnitude of the virus in the county. Is it growing? Is it decreasing? While this isn’t individual testing, we hope this will give us an understanding of the incidence in the community over time. We hope to have all five sewer plants signed up this week. We then will get a shipment of sampling supplies to begin sampling. It is also a relatively inexpensive option.”

Sandstrom said because the county “put the hammer down relatively quickly with tight restrictions, we bought ourselves some time. The first thing we did with that time is we gave Gunnison Valley Health the time to expand the hospital infrastructure. They are now prepared for the surge if and when we see one. The impacts on the hospital have thus far been manageable. So the next thing to focus on is testing. With that time we can find the tests we need to open back up.”

Sandstrom said no one knows for sure how it will work but he foresees a gradual reopening process and not a date when suddenly everything is back the way it was.

“Joni’s focus is now getting a picture of our community. That could be done with a statistical sampling,” said Sandstorm. “For example, we are encouraging people who have tested positive and recovered to sign up for the validation studies. Getting validated testing is important as the next step and it appears things are moving quickly. The issue comes in scaling up to make enough such tests for everyone who wants them—and everyone wants them. With proper testing we can monitor the spread and keep it contained through proper restrictions. The testing will not only allow us to monitor spread and contain it; it will also give us a sense of how many people have immunity. That will determine what sort of lifting of restrictions we put in place.

“We are in talks with probably 10 different companies working on tests,” Sandstrom continued. “We want to be near the top of the list to get some and we want to make sure we get a good test for whatever public money we end up spending. But we aren’t quite there yet.”

Sandstrom emphasized that the county has organized numerous business task forces to project how to handle the economy once the county does reopen for “normal” business. “We are trying right now to rein in all the options that are out there and distill the information. There is a business resources tab on the county’s COVID-19 website people can access. We are trying to lean into the health recovery aspect of the crisis as well as the economic recovery. We are actively pursuing a number of options. As I said, the next step is to get a test that works here so we can obtain the data we need to make good decisions.”

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