County eyes return to yellow phase

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UPDATE: Teachers began receiving vaccines on Saturday. Look for an update in this week's edition of the Plaindealer.

Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery hopes the county can return to level yellow in the next week, allowing businesses to operate at higher capacities if COVID-19 case counts remain low.

The state rolled out a new version of the color dial of regulations last weekend which allows counties to move more quickly into less restrictive phases.

After a surge in cases last week brought Ouray County well into red-level metrics, case counts have since fallen back into the yellow range, with 11 new cases in the last seven days as of Wednesday. Based on the county’s population, new cases must remain below 15 for at least a week, through Feb. 13, before the county can move back to yellow. Restaurants and other businesses could increase their capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent, and the county would be eligible to apply for variances to allow more people in certain outdoor settings, as they previously did for the Hot Springs Pool. The positivity rate, or percent of all tests given that are positive, must also remain under 7.5 percent to qualify for that change. Neighboring Montrose County was approved to move to the yellow phase on Tuesday.

In Ouray County, there have been 205 confirmed positive and 22 probable cases, including 29 in the last two weeks.

Kingery said it’s still not clear what fueled the latest spike, which was the biggest increase since November. Information from state contact tracers didn’t shed much light on connections between the cases, he said, and they weren’t concentrated in one particular industry or location.

He encouraged people to maintain social distancing and other measures to get to yellow sooner. Those metrics will also need to stay steady to avoid sliding back into orange.

The state’s new dial changes are less restrictive and have higher thresholds of case counts, intended to reflect increased immunity to the virus from vaccinations.

Ouray County Public Health has administered more than 700 shots so far: 647 people have received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and 110 people have received both doses, which provide about 95 percent protection from the virus two weeks after the second shot.

The county received about 50 doses from San Juan County Public Health this week to use for second shots this week, Kingery said. After the governor instructed public health departments to give any shots being held back for second doses as first ones, replacements for those never arrived, he said. San Juan County had extras in the current phase due to their smaller population, and they sent the leftovers to Ouray County to complete second doses this week.

“That’s the kind of creativity we’ve had to have,” Kingery told Ouray County commissioners on Monday.

There are about 60 people in the 70-plus age category left on their list for their first shots, he said.

Teachers are set to start receiving vaccines Saturday, but those will take longer than anticipated because more doses haven’t arrived yet, Kingery said. While he hopes the state will send a specific shipment of vaccines for Ouray and Ridgway school employees, as officials have indicated, that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, they’ll use about 50 doses this weekend, and he’s working with both school districts to identify the highest-risk people to get the first shots.

After receiving both doses, people are still advised to wear masks and maintain social distancing, until more is known about how the vaccine affects transmission, but quarantine rules will change.

"If it has been two weeks after your second dose, you won’t have to quarantine if you’re a close contact of a confirmed case,” Kingery said.

Ridgway Secondary School instructed all seniors, six juniors and the volleyball team to quarantine after a student tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

The student had minor symptoms Thursday, stayed home from school and was tested Friday, and received a positive result Saturday, Principal Russell Randolph said in an email to staff and parents.

The exposed students must quarantine through Feb. 14, 10 to days after contact with the student, but students won’t return to campus until Feb. 23, after mid-winter break

Superintendents of both districts said at a multi-agency meeting Wednesday that while they have had teachers and students test positive in recent weeks, they haven’t identified any transmission within the schools.

Testing through Public Health is still limited to people with symptoms or close contacts of confirmed cases and available by appointment only, until the state gets a new option for asymptomatic testing.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report forAmerica, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.