San Miguel County in Southwest Colorado had only one confirmed case of the new coronavirus as of Thursday night. But already it has sent a handful of people with severe respiratory ailments to hospitals where they’re receiving critical care for suspected infections.
In response and as a precaution, the county has taken some of the state’s most drastic measures to try to limit the spread of the disease. On Wednesday, the San Miguel County Public Health Department ordered its roughly 8,000 residents to shelter in place until at least April 3.
The problem is the county, which includes the ritzy resort town of Telluride, has had little to no testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Final results from the screening that has been done on just 38 people aren’t yet available, so health officials are essentially flying blind.
“We are presuming we have disease,” county spokesman Susan Lilly said. “We just don’t know how widespread it is.”
But two part-time Telluride residents have stepped in to try to solve the testing problem. They’re paying for everyone in the town of about 2,500 – whether they are symptomatic or not – and county to be screened twice in the coming two weeks for coronavirus using a new blood test that’s received preliminary OK from the Food and Drug Administration.
The test was created by their own company, a subsidiary of United Biomedical Inc., and some 15,000 kits will be provided – representing about double San Miguel County’s population. Testing will be done in the town first and then expanded into the county.
“Data is power,” said Mei Mei Hu, who along with her husband, Lou Reese, is making the testing possible.
They spoke to The Colorado Sun on Thursday morning as they were preparing their plane to ship an initial phase of samples – taken from emergency first responders and their family members – to a lab in California to be tested. Results are expected back in a few days – and then once everyone in the town and county is tested a first time, they will then be tested again.
There’s a hope that the data collected can be used far beyond San Miguel County and the one-road-in-one-road-out box canyon that holds Telluride. Hu and Reese believe their endeavor will mark the first time everyone in a U.S. county is tested for the virus. (Participation is voluntary.)
“This will be one of the first times where we screen a whole population,” Hu said. “What you do by testing en masse is you say, ‘What is active outbreak prevalence?’ If you’re positive on antibodies, that means you’ve been exposed to it at some time. If you test again in 14 days and you see that everyone is in the same state, it means that you didn’t have any new infections and you can then begin releasing people.”
Perhaps most significantly: The testing may be able to show how many people in Telluride and San Miguel County are infected with coronavirus but aren’t aware of it. In most cases, the disease results in only mild symptoms. Some people show no symptoms at all.
“In the event that there’s a lot, then I think it really informs the public,” Reese said.
Hu and Reese point to a similar mass testing completed in a town that was at the center of Italy’s outbreak. The experiment in Vo allowed authorities in the town near Venice to completely stop the spread of the illness by taking targeted social-distancing measures and ensuring infected people were isolated.
If they are successful in Telluride, they may be able to replicate their model across the U.S.
Gov. Jared Polis has likened the coronavirus to a “ghost” because it’s so difficult to track. Once testing is completed, the disease has already had several days to infect more people. Without testing, he’s said, trying to manage the outbreak is incredibly difficult. But Colorado’s ability to test people for the virus has been limited to just a few hundred people each day.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not endorsed the testing initiative in Southwest Colorado. The San Miguel County screening is done using blood, while the testing the state uses collects samples using nasal and throat swabs.
“We are currently evaluating the science and efficacy behind these types of tests to see if they will meet the public health need,” said Scott Bookman, head of Colorado’s public health lab and the state’s incident commander for the coronavirus outbreak. “We have not been able to determine whether that is a route the state will support at this time.”
Bookman said San Miguel County public health officials and leaders made the decision to pursue the testing through Hu and Reese on their own and they “certainly have the ability to make their own decisions.” He acknowledged that the testing need in Colorado has far outpaced the availability.
“We are committed to expanding testing across the state to the best of our ability,” he said. “We just need to identify what we believe is the best way to do it, and we have not made a decision at this time.”
Leaders in San Miguel County are so appreciative of the initiative, they became emotional. “When we reported this in our county meeting … the entire team cried,” Sharon Grundy, public health medical officer for San Miguel County, said in a written statement.
Grundy said that the current testing situation in Colorado is “out of our control.”
“Public health partnering with a private company gives us more control to get better optics into COVID-19 and help mitigate our losses, including what some are saying could be an incomprehensible amount of loss of life,” she said.
Hu and Reese declined to say how much the testing will cost them. They say it’s irrelevant and the focus is on helping their neighbors.
“It’s important to do,” Hu said. “We can do it. … When you’re in a small community, you try to do everything you can to help.”
Reese said he’s hopeful a great deal can be gleaned from the effort.
“Telluride has been famous for a lot of years for innovation, whether it’s clean energy or whether it’s trying to lead the way in a pandemic,” he said. “I think this is a model that will be rolled out in the rest of the country for best practice in how to monitor and contain the pandemic. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to mitigate suffering.”