Local health officials in Southwest Colorado started prepping a drive-thru testing site for the coronavirus at the La Plata County Fairgrounds on Wednesday, as a local push is underway for more tests and assessments to get a better handle on the number of possible cases in the region.
“We know we can’t do widespread testing, but we have to get some idea (of the virus’ presence in the community),” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.
The ability to test large swaths of the population is currently maxed out, but health officials need some level of testing to get an idea of where and what populations the pandemic is striking.
San Juan Basin Public Health hopes to get the green light for resources to open the temporary facility, which would not be open to the public and instead would test selected people most at risk, like health care workers, people with symptoms and those with orders from doctors.
“By testing a snapshot of the highest-risk people, we can get our arms around where this virus is going in our community,” Jollon said.
In the meantime, the facility being set up at the fairgrounds is closed, and Jollon had no time frame for when, or if, a temporary site would come to Southwest Colorado.
Communities across the country are dealing with a lack of the ability to test for the coronavirus.
Test kits are in short supply. There’s a scarcity of protective equipment for personnel conducting the tests. And even if kits were available, the lab process is experiencing a crippling backlog, so there’s no telling when results would be available.
“Everyone wants to get testing here, but there’s no place to get it processed,” Jollon said.
In Archuleta and La Plata counties, fewer than 30 tests have been conducted, and though there have been zero confirmed cases, it’s believed the virus is present in the community.
As a result, health officials have instituted measures to slow the spread of the outbreak, such as encouraging people to stay home and avoid large groups, closing businesses and restaurants, and asking people to use best-health practices.
“Without widespread testing, we’re doing the best we can without our most important tool,” Jollon said.
Earlier this week, Gov. Jared Polis expressed frustration with the state of testing. Requests for comment from the state were not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.
“Scaling that up has been very frustrating,” Colorado Public Radio reported Polis saying. “We are always chasing where it was three to five days ago. The data is a trailing indicator.”
On Tuesday, Polis opened a temporary testing facility in Telluride to test 100 high-risk people. Polis said other pop-up testing sites would open around the state, with a focus on mountain resort communities.
Mercy Regional Medical Center has said it has an adequate number of test kits for all hospitalized patients who show advanced symptoms of coronavirus, but it is not conducting tests on milder cases or the community at large.
“Given the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, we are moving from containment to mitigation strategies due to the presumed local transmission in our community,” Mercy said in an emailed statement.
“This means that we will no longer provide COVID-19 testing for those who do not need hospital admission. This will allow us to conserve valuable resources including testing and treatments, will enable appropriate isolation and preserve the well-being of our clinicians,” the Mercy statement said.
When asked if San Juan Basin Public Health would recommend Mercy conduct public testings, Jollon said: “From a public health perspective, and in order to have the best ability to keep the community safe, the more information the better. Anything to increase testing will help us.”
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said it is important for elected leaders and officials in the community to keep the pressure on the state for a testing facility.
“You can see a tendency to prioritize metropolitan areas,” she said. “But we very likely have the virus in our community, and if people aren’t getting diagnosed, then are folks really following the appropriate protocols?”
In a statement provided late Wednesday to The Durango Herald, a spokeswoman for Sen. Michael Bennet said he is pushing for urgent, widespread testing across the state – including in La Plata County.
“Our team is working with the county commission and San Juan Basin health department to try to expand access to local testing,” the spokeswoman said.