State mulls local virus mitigation plan

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Regional epidemiologist expected to help county

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The state health department has amended its limits on personal gatherings for counties in the “safer at home” category, including Ouray County.

Citing concerns about increased infection rates, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment amended its statewide public health order for counties currently in the “safer at home” phase of reopening. These changes include a limit on personal gatherings to 10 people, with no more than two households gathering at once. This new amended order is scheduled to last at least 30 days.

“We are asking all Coloradans to act with an abundance of caution to reverse these worrying trends. Right now, the virus is spreading when people from multiple households attend gatherings. We need to keep gatherings smaller and with people from fewer households — we are asking everyone to ‘shrink their bubble’ to reduce the spread,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the department’s executive director in a press release. “Please take every effort to reduce contact with members of other households. If you can work remotely, please do so to reduce contact with other individuals. Taking action now can prevent your loved ones from getting sick, and help us save lives and avoid stricter public health orders in the future.”

Mesa County recently lost its classification in the “protect our neighbors” phase due to increased infection rates and several outbreaks at personal gatherings and businesses.

Some other rural counties on the West Slope which had been designated in the less-stringent “protect our neighbors” category have also seen recent spikes in COVID-19 cases and are on the radar for potentially moving to a more cautious phase of reopening.

Ouray County’s newest confirmed case of COVID-19 involves a woman in her 70s who was tested on Oct. 22, reported to the health department on Wednesday. Two more cases reported on Sunday involve a woman in her 30s and her infant.

This brings Ouray County’s total to 42 virus cases, including three non-residents who are being reported by the county in its statistics.

Ouray County has several new cases of the virus in the past two weeks, and state health department personnel have indicated a possible mitigation plan to slow the infection rate may be necessary.

State health department officials met in a virtual meeting lasting less than 15 minutes with Ouray County officials last week to discuss a possible mitigation plan and next steps, in anticipation of more cases triggering changes to Ouray County’s protocols for the virus.

The state assigned Ouray County to the “safer at home” level 1 cautious phase in September. To keep this designation, the county needs to have fewer than 8 cases in the previous two weeks. These newest cases pushed the county’s positivity rate for the past two weeks up to 5.5 percent, according to information reported by the state health department.

Ouray County has a goal of moving to a less-restrictive phase, the “protect our neighbors” phase, but must meet certain metrics including lower infection rates, lower hospitalization rates and proving the resources exist to handle testing and hospitalizations among other criteria.

These latest cases, along with the second death of a resident who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, means state officials are talking about how to help the county lower infection risk.

During the virtual meeting last week, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Chief of Staff Mara Brosy-Wiwchar asked Health Department Director Tanner Kingery what might help the county right now. She cited success with another small, rural county - Huerfano County - with a mitigation plan that included an aggressive campaign to encour age mask-wearing, as well as limits on gatherings.

This meeting happened before the state health department issued a new directive on Friday limiting small gatherings to 10 people from two households.

Kingery told Brosy-Wiwchar he thinks having a new epidemiologist assigned to the six-county region to analyze data and provide insights on spread will help the department improve its response to more infections. “That has been bogging us down in our response,” he said. He also cited plans to increase testing availability and speed as a factor that will improve matters.

Ouray County currently has a variance in place to allow a larger capacity at swimming pools. This could be jeopardized if the virus continues to spread at this rate.

‘We don’t want to be in the business of taking away variances or moving you on the dial but we know that’s a possibility as long as you are out of compliance,” Brosy-Wiwchar said.

Kingery said one area the county could use some assistance with is enforcement - particularly in clarifying what the state wants to be done and help with following up on complaints or issues.

“It’s hard to always follow up with complaints or do compliance checks to see how people are doing,” he said. “It’s really hard to do enforcement.”

Brosy-Wiwchar said she would follow up this week and plans on asking for input from legal advice in her department and possibly from the state attorney general’s office regarding enforcement issues.

The state health department has been meeting with individual counties that have had increased testing rates to determine mitigation strategies to slow virus spread and lower the rate of positive cases.

During his quarterly report to the Board of County Commissioners this week, Kingery answered questions from commissioners on a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in the county.

Commissioner John Peters asked if cases are coming from outside or within the county.

Kingery said though county health and contact tracers have not been successful in determining the source of every case, the majority of traceable cases were traced to travel outside the county.

Kingery said that the most recent cases are either isolated or contained in households, such as spouses who both test positive or a mother-child pair. However, he noted that statewide an increase in cases has been linked to personal gatherings, such as dinners and birthday parties, hence the new orders from the governor.

Kingery noted that turnaround time on testing though improved, is still lagging in rural counties like Ouray compared to other areas of the state.

In response to another question from Peters on active cases, Kingery said Ouray County has experienced 25 percent of its total cases in the past month.