Health director ‘not that optimistic’ about state granting pool variance

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Slowdown in test results may sink county

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Each week, Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery picks up the phone and calls the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to check on the status of Ouray County’s request for expanded pool capacity.

And each week, he gets same response: No answer yet.

It’s been exactly one month since the county applied for a variance from state public health orders — which permit 50 people or 50 percent capacity at pools, whichever is less — to allow 200 people or 75 percent capacity. Officials at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool and Orvis Hot Springs who are currently turning away customers — and the revenue that comes with them — are anxious to let more soakers through the gate. At the Hot Springs Pool, 50 people is roughly 6 percent of capacity.

But Kingery has doubts about the state approving the county’s application.

"I'm not that optimistic, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think the state is actually trying to move away from that variance process and move into Protect Your Neighbor applications.”

The state’s so-called “protect our neighbors” phase, which will go in to effect on a community-by-community basis rather than a blanket statewide lifting of restrictions, would allow communities who meet a list of criteria to permit activities at 50 percent of pre-pandemic capacity and no more than 500 people in one setting at a time. Kingery said he’s had conversations with regional health directors about moving in that direction but acknowledged they’re nowhere near ready to submit an application.

The next phase of loosening restrictions requires each county to be approved to enter “protect our neighbors,” so it’s essentially another variance.

In the meantime, Ouray County’s pool variance request is still pending with no definite yes or no issued.

“It’s important to note that the state does not deny variance requests,” CDPHE spokesperson Lauren Errico wrote in an email to the Plaindealer. “Instead, we work with counties and provide feedback to bring them closer to meeting variance criteria.”

But the state’s own data doesn’t necessarily support that claim.

A Plaindealer review of variance applications filed with state health officials seeking expanded pool capacity found the state has received at least 12 such requests from counties around the state, including Ouray County. And while state health officials signed off on most of them, a few applications were approved only in part or rejected outright.

• Adams County received approval June 26 for up to 100 people in indoor pools and 175 people in outdoor pools at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center. The county had asked for up to 125 people indoors and 250 people outdoors.

• Baca County received approval June 14 for up to 50 percent capacity, or 50 people, in swimming pools.

• Chaffee County received approval May 21 for hot springs to reopen. The approval letter didn’t specify capacities.

• Delta County on June 27 was denied a request to increase capacity of outdoor swimming pools to 75 percent.

• Denver County received approval June 15 for 50 percent occupancy — up to 175 people — for indoor pools.

• Douglas County received approval June 26 for 50 percent capacity at pools, or up to 175 people indoors and 250 people outdoors.

• Garfield County received approval June 11 for up to 175 people at Glenwood Hot Springs and Iron Mountain Hot Springs. The county had asked for a larger 30 percent capacity at those pools, which the state rejected.

"We have concerns about the size of potential gatherings, which from the materials you supplied for one of the hot springs, could include almost 1,000 people in the pools and 1,500 on the grounds,” the state wrote in its letter. “Even at a 30% capacity, that would be 300 people in the pool and 450 on the grounds. You have provided thoughtful disease mitigation plans for these establishments; however, these numbers well exceed any variance that we have previously granted.”

• Jefferson County received approval June 7 for 50 percent capacity, or 50 people indoors and 125 people outdoors, at pools.

• Larimer County received approval May 23 for 50 percent capacity, not to exceed 175 people, for indoor pools.

• Montrose County on June 26 was denied a request to have 100 percent capacity for pools and no limits on the size of outdoor gatherings. Instead, the state allowed indoor gatherings at 50 percent of capacity, not to exceed 100 people, and 175 people outdoors.

• Rio Blanco County received approval June 3 for 50 percent capacity, or 175 people indoors and 250 people outdoors, in gyms, including pools.

The amount of time state health officials have taken to respond to variance requests has varied widely, ranging from a week for Douglas County’s application to 34 days for Rio Blanco County’s application, according to information provided by Errico.

Kingery said the state health department looks at a variety of data in considering whether to grant variance requests, such as infection rates and the direction they’re trending, hospital utilization, the amount of personal protective equipment the county has in stock and the county’s ability to test and conduct contact tracing.

He said he thinks the county’s application looks good from those perspectives. But where he thinks the county might run into trouble is the amount of time it’s now taking the state to return COVID-10 test results — something beyond the county’s control. Last month, the county was getting test results back from the state lab in as few as three days. Now, it’s more like 7-10 days, according to Kingery.

"We need to have results a lot sooner than that,” he said.

Kingery said he meets each week with public health directors from San Miguel, Montrose, Delta, Gunnison and Hinsdale counties, a group known as the West Central Public Health Partnership. He said the group is discussing pooling funds to bring a epidemiologist on board who can help them qualify for “protect our neighbors” status by meeting certain scientific metrics and developing a mitigation and containment plan should they fall out of compliance with those metrics. But there is no timeline for those six counties to submit a joint application.

Meanwhile, each day that goes by in which Orvis and the Hot Springs Pool can only admit 50 people at a time means revenue unrealized. Acting City Administrator Melissa Drake told city councilors during their July 7 meeting that she estimates the city is netting $68 in revenue each day from the pool. That’s the figure she comes up with when she subtracts the salaries and benefits of pool employees from gross admissions. That number doesn’t account for operational expenses such as chemical treatments.

Mayor Pro Tem John Wood cautioned during that meeting the pool can’t become an “anchor” as the city looks to borrow millions of dollars next year to help pay for a new wastewater treatment plant and, potentially, a drinking water filtration system.