County officials pursuing COVID-19 testing options

Looking far and wide for the best test for Gunnison County

by Mark Reaman

If knowledge is power, Gunnison County and most of the rest of Colorado have little power in the coronavirus arena because hard data is so difficult to come by. Data could be gathered by testing large numbers of people but test kits are few and far between in Colorado, and this has hampered the county and the state in gathering real numbers that could guide a long-term strategy to attack the spread of COVID-19.

That’s not to say efforts aren’t being made to try to get more testing done in Gunnison County. Gunnison County public information officer Andrew Sandstrom said Friday that county officials have been in touch with several researchers and companies that are working on developing coronavirus tests, including the Telluride couple who have pledged to test everyone in San Miguel County.

Mei Mei Hu and her husband, Lou Reese, of United Biomedical Inc. created a subsidiary of the company to deal with COVID-19 testing. Part-time Telluride residents, they have started testing people in San Miguel County.

The San Miguel County screening is done through blood draws that look for COVID-19 antibodies, while the state testing collects samples using nasal swabs.

According to the Telluride Daily Planet, individuals would be tested, required to self-isolate for 14 days and then tested again at the end of the two-week period. Results, which will indicate whether a person had fought off or is fighting the virus, would be available within 48 hours—a significant difference from the current timeline of four to seven days.

“Everyone in this valley appears to be aware of their efforts and we have been in talks with them,” Sandstrom said. “I think they have currently tested 600 people. But we are looking into other options as well. We are looking far and wide for testing capability that works for our community.”

Sandstrom explained that the Telluride tests being used are looking at short-term response to see if people are putting up an immunity response. He said Gunnison County public health director Joni Reynolds is concerned due to the virus’ scope in our area, that she wants a test that measures both long- and short-term immunity and there are scientists working on such testing. Reynolds has indicated, “We are not confident this is currently the right test for our community. We are researching multiple other options that would give us more actionable results.”

While cost is not the primary concern, Sandstrom said the Telluride test would cost $24 each and a minimum of 9,600 tests would have to be ordered. That $230,000 would not include the cost of having the test analyzed through a laboratory.

No one yet appears to have developed a validated test tailored to what the county is looking for but several companies have tests in the development phase. Sandstrom said Reynolds is on top of it, communicating with top-flight researchers, and figuring that if the county can do a statistical sampling to understand population statistics, it would go a long way in determining the next course of action. County health officials are also partnering with a California testing company to have people already tested in Gunnison County participate in a validation study for its new kits.

“Getting accurate numbers would allow us to see if we have developed what is known as herd immunity,” Sandstrom said. “Until we know if a significant portion of our population has had the virus, we can’t know if it is safe to reopen the doors. If we do it too soon, we could see a second wave of the virus sweep through the county. We need to understand if the community has enough immunity to do that. That’s the concern of opening up the doors again.”

Sandstrom said talks are being held with private and public companies working on developing various testing methods. He cited one example as a collaboration between Harvard University, Brigham Young University (BYU) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that takes sewage samples in a community to determine the magnitude of the virus within a specific community. The county earlier this week signed on to that testing which will begin within a week at the five wastewater treatment plants in the county.

“That’s just one other way that perhaps would allow us to understand how many people have this or have had it,” Sandstrom said.

Like many analyses of what different countries have done, it appears places like South Korea—that aggressively tested its population and then tracked the virus—have slowed the spread and kept the mortality rate low. “Unfortunately the lack of testing kits is not allowing anywhere in the U.S. to truly understand the incidence within the community,” Sandstrom said. “But we are at the point of pursuing potential alternative testing and we are trying to invest our community dollars in tests that would give us the best information to analyze our community situation. We want to know where we are with long-term immunity. So we are investigating all of the options available.”

Sandstrom said while there is a good idea that the virus has spread throughout the county, the fact we rely on self-reporting numbers can be a bit off. “Self-reporting is subjective,” he said. “Someone might have some of the symptoms but have the regular flu or a cold instead of COVID-19. We just don’t know. That’s where the importance of testing comes in. This community has done a really good job of slowing the spread by adhering to public health orders but we need hard data and that is what we are pursuing at the moment.”

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