Elected officials in Ouray County informally agreed Thursday night to present a unified plea to a community that’s in the midst of a spike in COVID-19 cases: Put aside politics, personal beliefs and concerns and do what needs to be done to protect yourselves and those around you and keep businesses open.
Led by Ridgway Mayor John Clark, officials from Ouray County, the city of Ouray and the town of Ridgway are expected to fashion and sign a letter to the public asking them to do the things necessary to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Ouray County is in the midst of its most significant increase in infections since the pandemic started eight months ago. Of the 83 total confirmed or probable cases reported by the county, 43 have come in the last two weeks.
The county moved from Level Blue to Level Yellow on the state’s color-coded dial on Monday, Nov. 9, and will move again to Level Orange — the state’s second-highest level of COVID-19 restrictions — on Monday, Nov. 16. That will put it one step away from Level Red and a stay-at-home order. The move from yellow to orange reduces business capacity in most cases from 50 to 25 people.
Exact details haven’t been worked out yet, but it’s expected the letter from public officials will be published in the newspaper, on social media and in other forums.
Officials know they will continue to see more positive cases come in, particularly with a mass testing event at the fairgrounds on Wednesday in which 907 people were tested — roughly 20 percent of the county’s population. But the county’s increasing positivity rate, coupled with recent outbreaks at workplaces and in social gatherings, means transmission of the disease is increasing and the rise in new cases isn’t simply due to more testing. With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away, officials are anxious to try to slow the infection rate.
“Tourism didn’t take us down this summer like I thought it would. It’s our own doing right now,” said Ouray Mayor Pro Tem John Wood. “It’s our own destiny. If we’re doing it to ourselves, we can fix it.”
The idea for the letter came after Don Batchelder, the chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, 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 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.
Ouray City Councilor Ethan Funk suggested getting businesses and nonprofit groups to sign onto the letter, noting they stand to be affected by further restrictions or, in the worst-case scenario, a shutdown.
Thursday’s meeting of the county’s Joint Policy Group, which lasted nearly two hours, 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.”
At the beginning of the meeting he noted the county’s two-week 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.
He said there are four confirmed COVID-19 patients at Montrose Memorial Hospital, all of whom are in intensive care, leaving two ICU beds available. None of the patients are on ventilators.
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.
Boyd told the Plaindealer late this morning that results from 287 of the 907 tests conducted at the fairgrounds on Wednesday have come back. So far, there have been 13 confirmed positive cases, including six today — a teenage female, three females in their 30s, 40s and 60s and two males in their 50s and 60s.