With COVID-19 on the verge of spiraling out of control in La Plata County, it’s up to the community to put the pandemic in check by following new, stricter public health regulations set to take effect Friday, according to San Juan Basin Public Health.
La Plata County has reported 242 positive cases in the past two weeks, as of Tuesday morning. That’s more than the county reported from when the pandemic started in March until early August.
As of Tuesday, La Plata County has reported a total of 628 cases and three “deaths among” people who had COVID-19 at the time of death since March. One of the deaths among cases was reported this week. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t distinguish those who died directly from COVID-19 until a county reaches 10 deaths.)
“That just shows how quickly it’s accelerated,” said Brian Devine with SJBPH.
Also Tuesday, an outbreak of COVID-19 cases was reported at the 911 dispatch center in Durango after three employees tested positive, and one additional employee may have been exposed, according to a statement from the city of Durango.
Necessary staff members are being tested and isolated if necessary, and there was no interaction with the public. The city of Durango said operations at the 911 center have not been impacted by the outbreak.
As a result of the rise in cases, SJBPH is moving La Plata County into a more restrictive public health protection, known as “Level Orange.”
Among the more significant changes, the legal operating capacity for most nonessential businesses, restaurants, workplaces and events is reduced from 50% to 25%. Employers are asked to let staff members work remotely whenever possible, Devine said.
“If it hasn’t been at your business before, it probably will be,” he said. “We need ... employees to work from home as much as possible.”
The last call for alcohol has been moved from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. to reduce late-night social gatherings, where typically face coverings are not worn and people are interacting with members outside their household.
And SJBPH is issuing a public health advisory, which is solely a recommendation, for any public indoor gathering (like going to a restaurant) or private indoor gathering to be limited to one household. People are also asked to stay at home past 10:30 p.m.
The changes, Devine said, are a consistent strategy since the pandemic started: The more people stay home and reduce social interactions, the less the virus can spread within the community.
“Because we have so much disease prevalent in the community, that unfortunately is necessary,” he said.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District, said many businesses were preparing for the changes, given the rise in local cases. But the changes are going to be hard on businesses, especially as the holiday season approaches.
“It’s just really hitting all aspects of our community really hard right now,” he said.
Several factors are driving the recent surge in cases, Devine said.
The weather has been colder, driving more gatherings inside, where some studies say it’s 20 times more likely for people to contract the virus, Devine said. Recent contact tracing has found many cases are related to indoor Halloween parties where people from multiple households gathered.
“It’s easy to spread a disease to a lot of people when you have a party,” Devine said.
Many positive cases were traced back to people hanging out at restaurants and bars late at night. Several other people got sick because they were watching sports indoors with friends outside their household.
Devine said one troubling trend is friend groups and co-workers are treating themselves as pods. But if one person gets sick, the virus can spread “really fast” among the group because no precautions are being taken.
While the health department is noticing that mostly all demographics are seeing an uptick, Devine said the increase in cases for people in the 18 to 35 age range stands out in the data.
Another cause of the recent surge, Devine said, are workplaces that don’t have much public interface where employees are not being monitored and may feel they don’t have to take precautions like wearing a face covering.
Devine said COVID-19 spreads “exponentially,” so when there’s an acceleration of transmission in a community, an outbreak can happen fast.
La Plata County has been able to keep positive cases at bay since the pandemic broke out, despite short-lived spikes in April and July, Devine said. But this current surge is far outpacing those previous peaks.
“We need to get them under control,” he said.
La Plata County’s positivity rate (the number of positive tests divided by the total number of tests) has remained low. As of the week of Oct. 25, the rate was at 3.68%, under the target rate of 5%. By comparison, the state seven-day positivity rate was 11.66% as of Tuesday.
Devine said positivity rates, however, are not a great indicator of the spread of the virus, and are instead helpful at showing how much testing is available within a given community.
Devine said health and medical experts are better prepared for a surge than they were earlier during the pandemic.
Now, health experts better understand how the virus spreads and who is most at risk. Medical treatments have improved, leading to hospital stay lengths going down, and the ability to test has radically expanded.
But the success of curbing the recent surge is mostly going to fall on how well the community responds and adheres to the stricter health regulations set to take place Friday, Devine said.
The effectiveness of public health orders usually has a delayed response time. The hope is positive cases start to slow down, Devine said, and the fear is cases continue to spike, forcing health officials to question what to do next.
The next level of restrictions is “Level Red,” essentially a stay-at-home order.
Devine said SJBPH wants to avoid that level of restriction at all costs, and is looking to communities on the Front Range where conditions justify a stay-at-home order, yet are discussing alternative measures.
Devine said La Plata County has proved it can weather the pandemic while retaining some sense of normalcy, evidenced by months of low cases amid a busy tourist season and schools reopening.
“The community has shown already we can choose to be successful,” he said. “We need to make that choice again as a community. We cannot afford to choose to fail.”