Coordinating with Colorado but expect health orders to be the norm for a while
by Mark Reaman
While it was expected that Gunnison County would release a new long-term public health order on Monday, June 1, the county has delayed the order in an effort to coordinate efforts with the state of Colorado and nearby counties. County Public Health director Joni Reynolds admitted, however, that public health orders were likely to be in place for many more months, or even longer to some degree, given the potential danger of the coronavirus.
Reynolds made the announcement at the Monday afternoon virtual meeting hosted by the county. The idea of waiting a week is to get on the same page with the state order as much as possible. Reynolds has been talking to the state public health officials in recent days and they agree with the idea of trying to coordinate with the various counties.
As a result, the county’s public health order that is currently in place was extended another week to June 8 at midnight. The variances granted by the state remain in place as well, so for example, group gatherings in the county can be up to 25 people instead of the 10 mandated across Colorado.
Ultimately, Gunnison County intends to implement a five-level long-term public health order that is color-coded to alert the seriousness of the coronavirus situation in the county.
Ranging from green to blue to yellow to orange to red, the colors are meant to indicate the severity of the local COVID-19 situation and implement different restrictions based on the immediate need. While a green or blue phase would indicate a relatively low-risk environment, orange and red would be an alert of high-risk situations. Reynolds said the county appears to be in a blue phase at the moment.
She explained that the color code would be determined on a number of factors including the number of positive tests being seen, the increase or decrease in people self-reporting COVID-19 symptoms and the state of the health care systems in Gunnison County and the nearby hospitals.
“It is very important that we continually monitor the situation,” Reynolds emphasized. “There are different thresholds for moving between the five levels. This long-term model provides lots of opportunity for us to think about the model and the local data to determine what makes sense for public health orders, both inside and outside the community. It provides a chance to see the data individually within the county or between the county, the region and the state. From that we can effectively communicate the level risk using the five color codes.”
While such a system has not been implemented anywhere else in Colorado, Reynolds said ideally she would like to see the state and nearby counties adopt the same or a similar model and she has been talking to state officials about such a broad system.
During Monday’s meeting Reynolds answered questions about the future and admitted she had no idea how long the community would be subject to some sort of public health orders. “Obviously getting kids back to school is a priority in my mind for this fall,” she said. “It is important for the mental health of the students, and probably all of us, to allow them the ability to return to their classrooms. So we want to have enough faith at that time that it won’t tremendously increase the chances of the virus spreading. But I don’t know the answer to how long we’ll be under public health orders. It depends on the potential for immunity through a vaccine or herd immunity, and neither of those is expected to happen quickly. I will say there is a lot of effort being made to develop a vaccine and it could happen sooner than expected. But my mind says it will be a while and for the months ahead we will be working with public health orders.”
Reynolds said the timing and type of restrictions largely depended on the community as a whole. “The community members completely changed the risk for the community when the outbreaks first came last winter. They more than flattened the curve to get it down to the low level of spreading we see now. They crushed it,” she said. “But even now there is still risk. And as community gatherings increase, the risk increases. It is just significantly lower than it was at the beginning.”
Noting that while no one knows the exact specifics of how the virus first spread, Reynolds said it seems based on current knowledge that large gatherings held indoors played a big part. Those gatherings, both public events and private parties, were held in Crested Butte and Gunnison in February and March and that is when the virus took off. The virus appears to spread primarily through droplets transmitted through air.
“The virus has the potential to be explosive,” Reynolds emphasized. “The hope is now that we can monitor the data on a daily basis and watch in two-week increments. For instance, there have been six new positive cases as of today in the last two weeks. That could change tomorrow and maybe there are only five. If we can watch the data with what we know now, hopefully we won’t have the volatility we experienced early on. That’s up to the community. That’s one purpose of the color codes. We want the public to remain aware of what is happening with the risk levels.”
The county’s public information officer Andrew Sandstrom said the county incident command team is taking this lull time to fine-tune the indicators that show when the virus is spreading. “This will give us the chance to hopefully react quicker than we were able the first time around,” he said.
There was some concern expressed that an influx of visitors could carry the virus back to Gunnison County and cause another outbreak. But Reynolds said there was no need at this time to have specific restrictions on second homeowners and tourists. She was supportive of the safety protocols developed by businesses through the local subgroups and she supported those efforts and ideas. She said she hoped such protocols might be further developed for indoor areas such as bathrooms. She also said the county would try to implement some form of contact tracing with those who test positive, whether they are a local or visitor.
On the issue of mandating masks, Reynolds indicated mask-wearing could come into play during higher alert levels. “Data has been coming out that shows wearing face coverings can be as impactful as any disinfectant,” she noted. “They help limit contamination of the air so I do anticipate having face coverings included in certain phases of the public health orders.”
She made clear that it was important that health-care–grade masks were available for health care workers.
The county will relook at the state and regional situation with the idea to issue a new public health order by June 8 based on the new long-term color-coding system. It was clear that while the county might issue a “blue warning,” the state could implement stricter regulations that take precedence unless a variance for the county is permitted by the state.
“The opportunity for alignment across the region and state is promising,” Reynolds said. “We are under constraints if the state is more strict but that’s why we’ve been talking to state officials already about variances based on our situation.”
“Whether or not the state adopts the same or a similar system, this should work well for us and help with local communication,” concluded Sandstrom.