WCU leads the county with latest COVID spike

But actually lots of bright spots with new trend

[ by Mark Reaman ]

Despite a significant increase in positive coronavirus cases recorded in the county since the start of the month, primarily on the campus of Western Colorado University, county officials say there are some silver linings:

—According to Gunnison County public information officer Andrew Sandstrom, many of the 70 new cases were discovered while people were in quarantine because of successful contact tracing protocols.

—While case numbers are up, no one has been admitted to Gunnison Valley Hospital for the coronavirus in many months and nearby hospitals with intensive care unit capability are not full.

—Since the majority of the new cases are associated with the Western Colorado University campus, targeted measures have been implemented to deal with the outbreak without having to implement a broad countywide crackdown.

—The county’s efforts to keep K-12 students safe and in the classroom are working and are being recognized as successful.

—COVID-19 outcomes are getting better with a lower mortality rate and shorter hospital stays as treatment becomes more successful.

—Gunnison County could be a major distribution point for the region when a vaccine is approved.


Western Colorado University concentration

Between November 1 and November 9, 70 new positives were recorded in the county. Of those, 56 were tied to Western. As a result, the Gunnison County Public Health department designated WCU as an outbreak area. Last weekend the university administration took action that shifted all classes to online learning, suspended athletics, closed the cafeteria so all meals would be grab-and-go, closed the Field House, expanded quarantine housing for students and developed travel guidance for students.

According to university communications officer Chris Rourke, there is a dormitory dedicated to house the students in need of quarantine. “While in quarantine, students are assisted in getting meals, and University staff is in communication with them,” she explained. “The conditions for quarantine ending are consistent with county standards: 14-day quarantine ends from the last contact with a positive individual, or if an individual gets a test one week from last contact with a positive individual, receives a negative result and has no symptoms.”

Rourke said that while several WCU athletes have tested positive for COVID-19, the outbreak appears to have been primarily the result of social gatherings and travel to other parts of the state by students. Rourke said students, faculty and staff screen their health each day and answer questions on an app called “Safe2Return.” If a student reports symptoms of the virus, that individual is asked to self-isolate. Self-isolation ends 10 days from first symptoms or test date, per county direction.

Rourke said the plan is to still conduct in-person classes at Western for the spring semester. Students will return to campus and start classes on January 11.

Sandstrom said the numbers coming out of Western this month are reflective of similar statistics from colleges throughout Colorado and the U.S. “This is not an unusual trend to see on campuses,” he said. “We did pretty well for a long time. We almost made it through the whole fall semester.”


Huge success shown with contact tracing

“The biggest success with this outbreak right now is that so many of the cases, 75 percent, were caught through contact tracing efforts and while people were in quarantine,” said Sandstrom. “That is a huge success for the public health nurses and their contact tracing efforts. All of those people could have been out and spreading the virus in the community, so squashing that second level of spread slows what could have been exponential transmission of the coronavirus.”

Sandstrom said the next step is for the entire county to “rally as a community again if we want to keep things open. Just because the majority of positives are associated with Western, we all need to understand that the WCU students are part of the community. They live and work all around the valley. We are an interrelated community so we all have to step it up. One of our biggest strengths has been working together.”

While most of the recent positive cases are related to Western students, Sandstrom said the new cases include all demographics, including people in the at-risk category. “Everyone is more relaxed and the two main causes appear to be associated with travel and personal gatherings like house parties with friends.”


Time to again stay vigilant

The next step will be a challenge, according to Sandstrom. “It all comes down to individual, personal choices,” he said. “That is what will drive the outcomes. Until now we have done really well. We can come together and turn things around like we did in the spring and last July when we started to see a spike. But this could be one of our biggest tests yet.”

Sandstrom said that because the spike is being seen throughout the state and includes an increase not just in positive cases but in hospitalizations as well, the challenge is more severe. “The number of hospitalizations is more important than case count,” he said. “And those are climbing. We have seen people show up at the emergency room but no one has been admitted to the Gunnison hospital for coronavirus. We are continually watching that, as well as the availability of ICU beds in our transfer facilities like Montrose and Grand Junction. So far it is good but as the state fills up it could impact our ability to transfer patients.”

Sandstrom said everyone is learning how to better deal with the virus. Mortality rates have dropped, hospital stays are shorter and mitigation measures are more effective. To that end, the fact that Western took immediate, targeted steps when it was clear an outbreak occurred on campus meant the county did not have to mandate stricter restrictions.

As to the future, Sandstrom said the announcement of a possible vaccine is good news and Gunnison County Public Health officer Joni Reynolds has been involved with vaccination distribution at the state level with the H1N1 vaccine. “We are ahead of some other places and prepared,” Sandstrom said. “This potential vaccine calls for very cold storage temperatures and the county purchased some deep freeze capability a bit ago. The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory also has some deep freeze capability and we are working with them to use their freezers. This could mean that we will be a distribution center for the Western Slope because not every place has that –80 degrees Celsius freezer capability. That puts us in a good spot.”

One last positive that Sandstrom mentioned was that there is more evidence that young kids don’t spread the virus as much as older people so the school district is in good shape to continue in-person learning. “The evidence is mounting that the benefits of classroom learning outweigh the risks and the school district here has been doing a great job with their safety measures,” he noted.

Meanwhile the Town of Crested Butte is enacting stricter COVID restrictions. Many town employees will return to remote work and recreation programs will be suspended for the rest of the month. The moves are meant as a proactive measure to help the community limit the spread of the virus as we move into the winter months.

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