San Miguel County has delayed the second round of testing of all county residents for COVID-19 because the lab processing the results is swamped with work from New York.
The county entered a partnership with United Biomedical Inc. to provide free, voluntary blood tests in mid-March to all county residents with each person to be tested twice – the second test to come 14 days after the first test.
The tests were considered a valuable tool in the fight against COVID-19 by county health officials, and about 6,000 county residents participated in the first round. The county has about 8,000 residents.
UBI co-owners, Mei Mei Hu, and her husband, Lou Reese, who are part-time residents of Telluride, paid for all county residents to be tested twice with COVID-19 blood tests developed by UBI to scan for the presence of the virus and development of antibodies.
San Miguel County Public Health officials announced earlier this month that fewer than 1% of the COVID-19 blood tests in March had tested positive for antibodies and 97% tested negative. About 2% of the results were classified as indeterminate, showing “a high-signal flash,” meaning they have an increased chance of converting to positive.
Only 1,600 of 6,000 first-round tests have been processed by the lab because of the backlog in work and shortages of supplies.
“We will continue to evaluate whether or not it makes sense to pursue the second round of testing given the unexpected obstacles UBI’s lab is facing,” said Grace Franklin, San Miguel County public health director.
Franklin added, “These are circumstances beyond our control. We don’t think it’s in the county’s best interest to invest in the time, manpower and supplies needed to retest nearly 6,000 people when there is tremendous uncertainty as to when and if we’d get those results back.”
UBI told county health officials unexpected delays processing the first round of tests are likely to continue as its lab is “the epicenter” of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City.
Company officials said its staff numbers are down 40% and access to necessary supplies, including personal protection equipment, is inadequate to process thousands more tests within a clinically relevant time.
“This pandemic has created unprecedented strains on whole systems, from PPE, to tests, to health care staff, and this lab is a part of that crunch,” Dr. Sharon Grundy, San Miguel County medical officer, said in a news release issued by the county.
UBI said it plans on processing as many tests as possible per day of the estimated 4,400 outstanding first-round test results starting Thursday or Friday.
“The delay in results is extremely disappointing, but it is not surprising when you consider the current state of our country due to this pandemic,” said Dr. Diana Koelliker, director of emergency services for the Telluride Medical Center.
Grundy said although the results of the first round will be weeks late, they still have value.
“The data will provide us with a better understanding of the prevalence of the virus in our community and how those who were exposed to COVID-19 faired,” Grundy said.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as of Wednesday, San Miguel County had 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
As of Wednesday, Colorado had 5,429 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 1,079 people are hospitalized and 28,094 people have been tested, according to the CDPHE.
Fifty-four of Colorado’s 64 counties have confirmed cases of COVID-19.
San Miguel County commissioners issued a statement Tuesday morning: “We accept and support our public health director’s decision to delay the second round of testing at this time. We understand the public concern and disappointment likely to stem from this announcement. The foundation of our approach to fight COVID-19 continues to depend on communitywide adherence to our current public health orders. We remain confident this is the most effective approach.”
Grundy said testing is only one of the tools in the fight against COVID-19.
“The foundation will always be our behavior – the stay-at-home and physical-distancing measures and best hygienic practices. We want to buy enough time for drug treatments or a vaccine to come down the pipeline,” she said.
Though UBI offered the test and processing free of charge, San Miguel County officials said the county incurred tens of thousands of dollars of expenses in manpower, supplies and associated expenses to execute the first round of testing. UBI is working with the county to cover the costs.
“At the end of the day, what we can control is our behavior. It is imperative that people stay at home, maintain physical distancing and wear face masks in public,” Grundy said.