San Juan Basin Public Health and other local authorities urged community members to take precautions Friday as coronavirus cases rise across Colorado and the nation.
Colorado counties, including La Plata and Archuleta, are tightening restrictions. Although the two southwestern counties have had success fighting the virus, public health and government officials say local communities could be in for a tough winter if they don’t retain control of the virus.
“The virus is roaring back all over the country,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of the health department, during a virtual news conference Friday. “We are afraid that that is going to happen in Southwest Colorado next.”
As of Friday, La Plata County reported 413 total cases with 43 new cases in the last week. Archuleta has had 69 cases with one new case since Oct. 23.
Recently, La Plata County shifted into a more restrictive stage of Colorado’s five-level COVID response, called Safer at Home Level 2. The stage is one step above “High Risk” and two steps above “Stay at Home.”
Local businesses would see shutdowns only if community transmission met Stay at Home criteria, Jollon said.
“We’ve really been an outlier in our success in fighting COVID-19,” she said.
La Plata and Archuleta counties have some of the lowest disease transmission levels per capita in the state.
Schools can conduct in-person learning. The tourism economy, sales tax revenue and airport operations are higher than expected. The region has had the highest lodging occupancy levels out of the entire state.
“The problem is when you’re this successful, COVID-19 starts to be background noise,” Jollon said. “We want people to know the worst of this is not over.”
In Colorado, one out of 219 people were infectious as of Friday. The state is seeing 1,800 to 2,000 new cases each day and has reported 102,000 cumulative cases, Jollon said.
“If this gets away from us now, we’re going to go into a really difficult winter,” she said. “Everybody has worked so hard ... it is now time to remind everybody, we have the power as a community to do the right thing.”
She urged people to stay home whenever they can and work from home when possible. People should avoid large social gatherings and keep household guests to a minimum. They should wear face masks, maintain social-distancing and hand-washing practices, and get tested when necessary, she said.
Representatives from county school districts, Fort Lewis College, Durango City Council and county commissioner boards joined in calling for greater caution.
“I really wish we weren’t having to do this urgent news conference today,” said Gwen Lachelt, La Plata County commissioner. “It’s important not to give up. Don’t let your guard down.”
Students need to continue in-person learning, particularly because broadband and cellphone connectivity pose challenges to remote instruction, said Kym LeBlanc-Esparza, superintendent of the Archuleta School District.
There is no set threshold for closing schools, but viral transmission is lower in school settings than it is elsewhere in the community, Jollon said.
Pagosa Springs Medical Center is focused on its surge plan. The hospital does not have an intensive-care unit and relies on Mercy Regional Medical Center and Denver hospitals, which could be an issue if those hospitals reach capacity.
Mercy is one of 17 hospitals in the Centura network, and resources can be shifted as necessary, said Mercy CEO Mike Murphy.
“We know that this virus can be a silent spreader,” he said. “It’s incredibly important to emphasize the limiting of our exposure by avoiding extended family gatherings.”
Mercy, which has been slow or reluctant to provide hospital data publicly, did not plan to change its community update procedures. It plans to continue to provide information directly to the state.
What about enforcement?Questions raised during the news conference included: Why can’t the local government enforce mask orders? What is the purpose of a health order without an enforcement mechanism?
“I think this is an extraordinarily unfortunate discussion to have in the first place,” Jollon said. “Doing the right thing is how we protect each other, how we keep kids in school and how we keep people getting paychecks.”
Most people are following public health orders, Jollon said. SJBPH, for its part, is focused on disease investigation and control, she said.
Two local companies, Top That Yogurt in Durango and Farmers Fresh Market in Ignacio, have continued to conduct business while violating state orders that call for wearing masks in indoor spaces.
Lachelt said community members should make their concerns known to businesses that aren’t complying and to “vote with your pocketbook.”
Mayor Dean Brookie said Durango has 60% to 70% compliance with the mandatory mask order. He focused on educating the public and public health policies. City Council is looking at more strict enforcement, he said.
“We’re taking enforcement very, very seriously, but it all comes down to ... money and expenditure of resources,” Brookie said. “I’m not really worried about one bad actor on the corner of College and Main.”
The officials did not describe specific enforcement tools available to authorities and declined to explain why public agencies with enforcement powers have not used those powers.