COVID-19 increases but hospital cases remain low

Cases more spread out

by Mark Reaman and Katherine Nettles

The number of positive COVID-19 test results continues to climb in Gunnison County with the latest results being spread more evenly throughout the valley. While last week’s numbers showed that about 88 percent of the positive cases in the last month were focused in Gunnison, this week the numbers show that for most of July, 11 percent of the people testing positive live in Crested Butte; 67 percent live in Gunnison; 17 percent live in other county locations; and the final 5 percent are non-county residents.

“We’ve had an increased number of positive tests, we’ve also had an increased positivity rate, an increased number of contact tracings and increased contact tracing identifications,” says Gunnison County public health director Joni Reynolds. “About 20 percent of the positive tests have come through contact tracing of someone else who tested positive.”

No specific individual event has been seen to be the cause of the increase in positive test results. “We’ve seen some clusters of cases, but only one has met the definition of an outbreak, and that’s McDonald’s,” Reynolds told Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday, August 4 during a formal update with them. McDonald’s was closed for several days for disinfection and further employee testing, and passed a reopening inspection Tuesday.

Reynolds said there are several other businesses that have had one or two cases in their establishments, but there has not been demonstrable evidence of an outbreak among them. Evidence of an outbreak is defined as being the only place the individuals had interacted, “and that we could say the exposure or risk occurred at that business.” Nevertheless, Reynolds said her department has been working closely with such businesses on employee procedures to prevent further exposures. Reynolds said her agency is working with the Crested Butte branch of Bank of the West and Crested Butte Ace Hardware as other examples.

“We are analyzing data from the positive cases to determine if there are any areas of concerns,” she said. “ We do have a couple of businesses that we are monitoring, as they have one positive test and some pending tests among employees. Each cluster we are investigating is to determine if there is evidence of transmission within the entity.”

Reynolds continues to emphasize that the key right now “is to monitor the ability of our community to provide care, including the availability of hospital beds both in Gunnison and in the region at places like Montrose and Grand Junction that have ICU capabilities.”

The numbers indicate members of a younger demographic are picking up the virus and they are not getting hit as hard as the more “at-risk” population of older adults or those with preexisting health issues.

There has been one COVID patient at Gunnison Valley Health in the past three weeks.

“It is a great thing to not have COVID patients at GVH or transferred,” Reynolds said. “We have seen a significant decline in the age of individuals being tested as well as the age of individuals with a positive test compared to March.”

Overall, Reynolds said again, it is important to continue the health prevention measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands regularly. “We are also pressing to get more timely test results from the state and considering if there are any other options for testing to get timely results,” Reynolds said. “We remain cautious and concerned but continue to monitor the Coronameter indicators and other available data.”

A graph of July positive cases presented to commissioners shows that positives in July are looking closer to what the valley had back in March.

“The whole thing is alarming,” Reynolds said. “But what we do know is we are finding more cases and connecting with more people and we are testing better than we were in March.” Reynolds estimates the positive results in March were an underestimation by a power of five or ten.

Currently under the Coronameter, the county remains in a “Blue” risk assessment. Unless coronavirus admission begins to spike at the hospitals or public health workers get an outbreak of the virus, the county should remain in the Blue phase.

Reynolds spoke of the social, emotional, psychological, economic and other impacts related to the pandemic. “The dance is really about how do we get that balance,” she said. “We know we are going to have disease spreading in the community until we get that long-term solution… how do we make sure that our healthcare system is not at risk and protect the individuals in the community but we don’t overprotect to the point that we create some other unintended consequences for our actions.”

Reynolds reported that the incident command is conducting data collection to assess mask use as customers exit businesses. So far they have done five assessments, and seen an 85 percent to 90 percent compliance rate, “which is excellent,” she noted.

Commissioner Liz Smith asked about the approaching start to a new school year for Western Colorado University, and what that will look like. Reynolds answered that there are systems in place for at-risk teachers, staff and students to work remotely and there will be a period of isolation for all students arriving on campus.

“I do think we’ll see more cases. I think we’ll see more cases at the school. And I think we’ll handle it appropriately,” Reynolds concluded.

County manager Mathew Birnie suggested that fall sees a tapering down of the high summer season for visitors, which might help curb the spread with more control over the student travel and mitigation.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck said he wanted to dispel what he believes is a misconception “that we are trying to just wait this thing out. We are monitoring this daily… there will be more cases and some hospitalizations but we have built the capacity to work with this. These are balanced and very tough equations to figure out.”

As of August 5, there were a total of 196 positive cases reported in the county with 60 tests still awaiting results.

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