San Juan Basin Public Health said 26 COVID-19 tests had been completed as of Tuesday in La Plata and Archuleta counties, compared with 1,790 completed tests statewide.
La Plata County has consistently reported no positive cases of COVID-19. Colorado reported 183 positive cases and two deaths as of Tuesday. Earlier this week, local health officials reported fewer than 20 completed tests. The low number of tests, some of which are being processed, is because of a national testing capacity shortage, said Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director.
SJBPH, medical practitioners and others are operating as if COVID-19 is present and circulating in the community, or will be very soon.
“There have not been enough tests conducted in SJBPH’s area to definitively conclude that COVID-19 is not circulating in our community,” Jollon wrote in an email to The Durango Herald on Monday.
Mercy Regional Medical Center has testing kits and the capability to test all hospitalized patients who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, wrote Shauna Gully, Centura Health’s chief clinical officer, in an email to the Herald on Monday.
That does not include patients with mild to moderate cases who can still transfer the virus to more vulnerable populations.
Colorado has seen wider spread of the virus, and more people are presenting at the Mercy emergency department, Gully said. The hospital is testing only those who need hospitalization and meet testing criteria.
She did not provide additional information about how many tests have been conducted or include the number of testing kits available.
SJBPH and medical practitioners suggested acting as though the novel coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19, are already present in La Plata County.
Dan Schaefer, a family doctor at Whole Health Family Medicine in Durango, said his office received 25 or 30 calls Monday from patients with questions about symptoms and next steps. Fever, shortness of breath and coughing, plus exposure to someone or a place with a COVID-19 outbreak, are common testing criteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You’re hearing there’s zero identified cases in our community, and that’s an important factor in whether you are at risk or whether you need to be tested,” Schaefer said.
“The fact that we have zero positive tests identified I don’t think is a reflection of the truth,” he said. “I think there are people in town, so we need to treat it as such,” adding he felt confident more testing resources would be available soon.
The state of Colorado announced several measures to increase support across the state and testing capabilities in mountain communities on Monday. For example, a testing site will open in Telluride to serve 100 pre-selected, high-risk patents. It will not accept walk-up or drive-up patients.
Schaefer declined to give a specific number of cases he has screened and referred for testing, citing patient confidentiality and incomplete data. He said “less than 50.”
Jude Harrison, a practitioner at La Plata Family Medicine, said Friday he had referred about six people for testing.
The novel coronavirus spreads easily because many people don’t realize they are sick, Harrison said.
“You might just be thinking common cold, but in this setting, you need to take special care not to infect other people,” he said.
Tom Newell, family nurse practitioner at Family Health Care, said he received 20 test kits from QuestLabs, a private company, and had not yet run any tests.
“We are trying to ration them to people who are sick and need to know for sure,” he said.
He looks for fever of 101 or higher, cough, congestion, flu-like symptoms, general shortness of breath and potential exposure to COVID-19. Results should come back three to four days after the test.
“If they’re sick and need to be hospitalized, it would be important for quarantine reasons to know if they’re positive,” Newell said.
Mercy: Ask public health. Public health: Ask Mercy.Prior to Monday, San Juan Basin Public Health and Mercy Regional Medical Center were reluctant to share more information about the number of tests being conducted and testing kits available.
Jollon with SJBPH cited patient privacy, although no identifying information was requested by the Herald.
“Really, you have to direct that question to the entities that are doing testing because this is not our information to share,” Jollon said.
Mercy Regional Medical Center, the primary testing facility in La Plata County, also declined to give information about how many tests it has conducted in La Plata County.
Jennifer Rupp, a physician at Four Corners Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine, said Friday the number of tests was always changing, so it would always be inaccurate. She said the hospital also wanted to pass data through the state of Colorado before releasing it publicly.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment also did not provide the number of tests kits available or the number of tests that have been administered in La Plata, Archuleta and Montezuma counties.
“When people get an idea of numbers, people can infer certain judgments, like why aren’t we testing more, or how come we’re not testing everybody. And I think the number may mislead people to think that we’re not doing enough, when in fact we are,” Rupp said.
Sarah Silvernail, Mercy spokeswoman, directed the question about testing to public health agencies.
“The public health community is in charge here,” she said. “They are the place you go to for testing numbers and all of that. That’s not our place. That’s not what we’re doing here.”