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State COVID-19 testing ‘overwhelmed’ as mountain counties experience backlogs

March 17, 2020, 5:45 pm

A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily.

COVID-19 testing lab in Gypsum (Vail Health photo).

The volume of testing for the COVID-19 virus has overwhelmed the Colorado public health lab, the state public health incident commander for the disease admitted Monday, which explains why Vail Health was still waiting on more than 200 test results as of Monday afternoon.

“So we are doing everything we can at the state lab to work through the backlog,” Scott Bookman said. “The volume of testing that has been required in response to this incident has been overwhelming. We have not had as much support from our private partners as we expected to have.”

Bookman said that the state lab can only process about 250 tests a day, while private labs seem to be more focused on working with clinical partners. Even thought the state lab is working 24 hours a day and hiring more staff, it simply cannot keep up with the demand as the outbreak spreads across the state and particularly into hard-hit mountain areas.

“Vail Health has submitted more than 400 samples to the state lab for COVID-19 testing, with more than 200 results still pending,” Vail Health officials said in an email statement Monday. “As a result, Vail Health has begun to send samples for testing to private commercial labs.”

But Bookman said even those private labs in Colorado are taking multiple days to process tests.

“The volume of testing continues to overwhelm the capacity of any of our systems,” Bookman said. “The turnaround times of our state lab are several days now, and turnaround times at LabCorp and Quest continue to also be three to four days. That is a weakness in the system.”

The state is sending a mobile lab and the National Guard to Telluride on Monday to begin surveillance testing of an area that hasn’t yet been hit as hard as Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison counties, where the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Sunday strongly recommended social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Bookman was asked why mobile testing in Telluride and not Eagle County.

“The reality of it at this point in the Eagle County area is that there is widespread community transmission, and the goal of the mobile lab is to go to other locations to inform our epidemiologists on potential growing areas of spread so that we can put the appropriate resources in the appropriate places,” Bookman said of Eagle County, where on Sunday there were as many cases (24) as Denver – tied for most in the state.

The mobile lab and National Guard will head to Routt County later in the week to try to get a better sense of where the disease is spreading. Locally, that means people need to hunker down and limit their contacts to immediate family members, officials said.

Eagle County sent out this reminder on Monday: Testing is not necessary for mild cases. People with symptoms should self-report at https://bit.ly/39XFRne. Social distancing is strongly encouraged to help minimize spread of COVID-19. Visit ecemergency.org for more info.

“Our hospital has said that they are struggling with large employers who have had a case and then they’re making all their employees go get tested before they can come back to work, and we can’t handle it,” Eagle County spokeswoman Kris Widlak said over the weekend before the local ski areas shut down. “The hospital system and the medical providers cannot handle that.”

Vail Health praised the efforts of the county thus far.

“Vail Health is grateful for the leadership and collaboration shown by Eagle County and Eagle County Public Health. Their proactive decision to declare a state of emergency on March 7 has proven to be a terrific administrative tool, allowing the Eagle County to receive additional medical supplies from the state prior to other counties,” Vail Health officials stated.

Widlak emphasized that the local health care system and its testing efforts could become overwhelmed on several fronts if people do not adhere to social distancing.

“It could be all of it at any given time,” Widlak said. “It could be the actual personnel. It could be the personal protective equipment they have to wear while their testing and it can be test kits. And I don’t know where the levels are of any of those things. We just know that there’s three different ways we could get overwhelmed with that.”

The state on Monday announced the hiring of 50 new nurses from the Freedom Health Care Staffing Company, trained in providing care in crisis situations. They will be staffing both testing and health care facilities around the state and are funded in part by some of the $3 million from the Disaster Emergency Fund ordered by Gov. Jared Polis’ Executive Order D 2020 003.

Because of that order and other executive authorities granted to the governor by the statewide disaster declaration, state Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon, who represents Eagle and Routt counties, said the legislature did not doing any COVID-19 budgeting before taking an unprecedented emergency recess for the next two weeks.

Roberts, who is sheltering in Denver to adhere to recent CDPHE guidelines concerning mountain counties, pleaded with residents of hard-hit mountain towns to adhere to social distancing.

“Coronavirus is different than the flu or a bad cold. It is significantly more contagious and has a significantly higher mortality rate, particularly for those people in at-risk health categories and senior citizens,” Roberts said. “And so even if you’re not in one of those categories, you have a personal responsibility to keep our community safe and be respectful of your neighbors and community members who are in those at-risk categories.”

State Sen Kerry Donovan of Vail echoed Roberts’ sentiments.

“The health experts have advised our communities to minimize social interaction because at this stage, community transmission is reaching levels where the only way to responsibly be part of the solution isn’t testing, it’s following the guideline of not having contact with people outside your immediate household,” Donovan said, adding she’s working on state economic measures to deal with the immediate and long-term impacts of shuttering mountain-town businesses.

Both Roberts and Donovan, who are Democrats, wish there had been more leadership from Washington on the preparation and testing fronts.

Roberts said this has hit the hardest in his ski town district because of their international clientele and the amount of travel local residents do, and that better leadership from Washington could have made testing much more effective.

“If we were ahead of this or we would have isolated those who had symptoms, we would have tested them in a reasonable amount of time to understand whether they had the virus or not,” Roberts said. “And we could’ve avoided a lot of this.”

Donovan took it a step further.

“I’m very supportive and proud of the state’s leadership on this,” Donovan said, citing the CDPHE’s lack of resources from the federal government. “I am frustrated that the administration in D.C. seemed to take a pathway of denial instead of a pathway of responding and preparation. But … it’s not the time for excuses or finger pointing. When everyone’s back to feeling safe and healthy, we can review what we could’ve done better.”

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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