COVID-19 numbers level off in the county

Focus on testing

By Mark Reaman

Gunnison County’s Coronameter early warning system appears to have worked to get the rising number of positive COVID-19 test results in the county stabilized and decreasing. 

Local public health officials noticed a significant spike in positive test results that seemed to have started around the Fourth of July holiday. Given the lag time with testing, the spike wasn’t noticed until a couple of weeks later. Warnings were then voiced and the public responded appropriately. 

Now the numbers are decreasing and one of the two indicators reached as part of a decision to move from the Blue risk assessment level to the more restrictive Yellow has retreated.

“The Coronameter did its job,” noted Gunnison County public information officer Andrew Sandstrom. “Looking back, when we saw the numbers starting to increase we got the word out to the public and the community reacted. Now, we are in a much better place with the trend of the numbers.”

Sandstrom said one glitch even with the Coronameter was the time it was taking to get COVID-19 results back from the state laboratories. Ideally it would take just a few days but in July results were taking up to two weeks. It is easier to track cases when test results are swift and measures can be implemented much more quickly when testing shows any increase in the spread of the virus. 

As of Monday, August 10, Sandstrom said the backlog of test results appears to have been flushed out by the state and now pending tests are mostly centered on this week.

Before the change this week, getting county test results has been frustrating for county Public Health director Joni Reynolds but she is hoping that some recent actions by the state will improve the situation. The state Public Health Department is apparently hiring a third shift to man the laboratories that determine test results.

“Testing has not always been smooth and it has been taking too long to get results back,” Reynolds said Monday. “It is an important part of the strategy in managing the coronavirus. The state has said it is developing additional strategies to improve testing in Colorado.”

Incident Command Team member Jodie Leonard of Gunnison Valley Health said the hospital would be performing more tests through the contact tracing program. Those who test positive will be asked with whom they have been in contact and those people will get a test.

Leonard said GVH is also working with rapid result saliva testing when people come into the emergency room and it seems those tests are performing accurately. GVH will be adding those numbers to the county’s test data on the website but they will be listed separately from the running totals so people can see the difference. 

Those rapid result tests get a result back in an hour instead of taking several days. Reynolds said they look good and appear in alignment with the normal testing, but the tests have not yet received full FDA approval and the number of rapid result test kits are limited.

A big batch of test results came back at the beginning of this week showing that thus far, eight positives have been recorded out of 102 tests given last week. The trend tends to show more younger people are testing positive than compared to March when the COVID-19 outbreak began; that is good in the sense younger people are more likely to have a mild case and not need hospital care.

Gunnison County emergency manager Scott Morrill said given the stabilization and new numbers, the hope is the state will look at the county’s variance request to loosen up restrictions even more. The positivity rate is the one indicator still in play since the positivity rate is at about 16 percent of all tests and the maximum comfortable threshold has been set at 5 percent.

Sandstrom confirmed that the county’s Health and Human Services Consumer Protection team has been working with a Crested Butte restaurant. Bonez had two employees test positive for the coronavirus but it was not definitive that they caught the virus while at work, so the state is not considering the restaurant an outbreak location. The team is working to make sure safety protocols are in place at Bonez and sanitation measures are being implemented.

Down the road

As for the contact tracing app the county was looking to develop, Reynolds said the licensing agents made the decision to not develop the app for towns and counties. Instead the app could be developed on a statewide basis so the Gunnison County effort is on hold.

In the long-term view, science team member Ian Billick told the public health officials Monday that his group was looking at what it would look like to scale up testing significantly “since we are imagining what the next three to six months will look like as new testing technologies are rolling out.”

Sandstrom said Gunnison Valley Health is considering the use of “pool testing” to speed up results. That would involve mixing, say, 50 tests in a batch and running a single test. If the test comes back negative then you have cleared 50 people for the virus. If it comes back positive, each of the people would have to be tested individually. The bottom line is that in other places this has shown to be an effective testing procedure.

Schools are gearing up to restart and protocols are being developed for both the Gunnison Watershed School District, which plans to start in-person teaching at the end of August, and Western Colorado University, which begins next week.

As for a vaccine, Reynolds said we shouldn’t expect to see any inoculations start in Gunnison County until at least early 2021. But she said the Public Health Department is using this time to plan on how to most efficiently distribute the vaccine when it becomes available. 

Reynolds said the county is also gearing up to distribute more of the annual flu vaccine this fall. She said while the vaccine would be prioritized for the at-risk population—especially those older than 65 and communities of color—there should be enough flu vaccine that everyone who wants it should have the opportunity to get it. The county will begin giving flu shots in early October and Sandstrom said public health officials encourage everyone to get one.

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