Plea to public: Slow virus spread

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With Ouray County in the middle of its biggest spike in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began eight months ago, elected officials in Ouray County are joining forces to ask the public to slow virus spread and keep businesses and schools open.

Led by Ridgway Mayor John Clark, officials from Ouray County, the city of Ouray and the town of Ridgway are taking the unusual step of presenting a unified plea in the form of a letter to the community. It’s expected the letter will publish in next week’s Plaindealer and on social media and in other forums.

Ouray County this week reached 102 total cases of COVID-19. More than half of those cases — 53 — have have happened in the past two weeks. That surge pushed the county up two spots on the state’s color-coded dial — from the “caution” level blue “concern” level yellow on Nov. 9, then to “high risk” level orange on Monday. The move from yellow to orange reduces business capacity in most cases from 50 to 25 people and nixed the variance allowing increased capacity at pools.

The county is one step away from a revamped “severe risk” level red, which would end indoor dining at restaurants and move last call for alcohol from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. Restaurants could still serve takeout meals. The state on Tuesday updated its COVID-19 dial and added an “extreme risk” level purple, which would trigger a stay-at-home order, meaning the previous “stay at home” level red is no longer the most restrictive category.

Local health officials anticipate more positive cases, particularly with the Nov. 11 mass testing event at the Ouray County Fairgrounds in which 907 people were tested.

According to Kingery, 738 results had been received from the mass testing as of Wednesday afternoon. The county was still waiting on results from the state lab on nasal swab tests, which are now taking about a week to process. The other oral swab tests were taking about 48 hours for results.

Kingery said the county has received its rapid test machine and is using it primarily for testing first responders but also in situations where immediate results are necessary and someone is symptomatic.

Medical providers are asking people to avoid going to Montrose Memorial Hospital’s emergency room for testing. Free testing is available for symptomatic individuals through the Ouray County Public Health Department, and there is also a free drive-through state testing site in Delta.

A total of 17 confirmed positive cases have emerged thus far from Ouray County’s mass testing event. With Thanksgiving a week away, officials are anxious to try to slow the infection rate.

Some cautioned folks to weigh the costs of decisions to spend time with at-risk individuals or traveling, possibly exposing themselves or others to the virus.

“This is not the year to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, certainly not with grandparents,” said Dr. Drew Yeowell, an emergency room doctor at Montrose Memorial Hospital who is also Ouray County’s emergency medical director.

The recent surge in cases has come from locals transmitting the virus to each other, not visitors who were previously feared to introduce the virus.

“Tourism didn’t take us down this summer like I thought it would. It’s our own doing right now,” Ouray Mayor Pro Tem John Wood said during a meeting of local elected officials on Nov. 19. “It’s our own destiny. If we’re doing it to ourselves, we can fix it.”

The idea for the letter came after County Commission Chairman Don Batchelder asked what elected officials might do to try to reverse the spike.

“We still do have a fairly large population of people who don’t buy into this (virus) in any way, shape or form. So my question is ... what can the electeds do other than model behavior and talk to people to try to make a difference with segments of the population that are going to be hard to reach?” he said.

The nearly two-hour meeting of the county’s Joint Policy Group featured a tense moment between Wood and Ouray County Commissioner Ben Tisdel after Wood called the county’s response to COVID-19 “tepid” and questioned whether county officials were trying to encourage herd immunity. Tisdel took umbrage with that.

“I’m being honest and frank and I’m sorry you don’t like that,” Wood told Tisdel, noting he is “somebody on the business side who is following all the rules and is losing his business.” Wood owns KJ Wood Distillers, which has been closed for much of the last eight months.

Clark said he didn’t consider the county’s response to COVID-19 to be tepid, but “nuanced.”

“While most people are having fairly mild symptoms, there are still people dying and there are still people turning into what they call long haulers. They have symptoms that linger for months and months and months,” he said.

He said he was “really sorry to see heated words exchanged because we’re all trying to get through this.”

“Those guys are working their fricking tails off,” Clark said of Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery and Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd. “Those of us in the policy group aren’t showing them the respect and support they deserve.”

Both Kingery and Boyd choked up during the meeting.

“This is a tough time for a lot of people,” Kingery said, fighting back tears. “Please try to remember to be patient, be kind. Everyone is pretty maxed out. So this is really a good time to reach out to friends you haven’t talked to in a while, make sure they have what they need.

“Be patient and understanding. We’re all trying to get through this together.”

Kingery said he and others can try to stage public health interventions and layer in other actions, but stemming the virus’ rising tide comes down to “personal behaviors.”

He noted the county’s positivity rate was 7.5 percent. Health officials are trying to keep it below 5 percent.

“Our cases are skyrocketing right now,” Kingery said. “It’s just more evidence that we need to be doing the best we can to limit transmission.”

Responding to a question from County Commissioner John Peters about the severity of Ouray County’s cases, Kingery said most are “pretty mild,” though some are staying in isolation longer than 10 days because they’re still experiencing symptoms. He said nobody from the county has been hospitalized for some time, which is good. On the other hand, people who aren’t showing symptoms are testing positive, making it a “tough virus to nail down.”

“It really just goes to show what a unique, novel virus this is. We’re still learning a lot about it. There’s still a lot we don’t know,” Kingery said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no ICU beds available at Montrose Memorial Hospital. Four ICU beds were accupied by COVID-19 patients.

Kingery said Gov. Jared Polis is reluctant to issue another stay-at-home order, meaning it likely will fall to individual counties to decide whether to take more stringent actions. He said while health officials know more about the virus and how to address it now than they did in the spring problems arise when hospitals begin to fill again with COVID-19 patients, making it difficult for them to treat patients with other illnesses.