Summit County health experts update COVID-19 testing demand and contextualize symptom, social distance data
County officials laud community's stay-home efforts thus far
DILLON – As Summit County positive tests of the new coronavirus reached 50 Saturday, local health experts shared their latest takeaways specific to the spread of COVID-19 in Summit County, speaking on how testing is going and what lies ahead.
Dan Hendershott, the county health department’s environmental health manager, spoke about the ever-evolving situation and forecasted what he and other health experts around the county are focused on monitoring in the weeks ahead.
Hendershott and county spokeswoman Julie Sutor said the county health department’s primary talking point in recent days has been testing. Sutor said the county still does not have the capacity to test everyone in the community who has symptoms, though in the last week the county has begun to expand testing to people who are sick with more moderate symptoms that could be associated with COVID-19.
As of Saturday, Hendershott said the county has been able to keep up with the doctors’ demand for mobile testing, a method that brings testing capabilities to an individual’s residence or location. A doctor’s prescription is still required to be tested.
“As we get referrals we haven’t had to turn anyone away, to my knowledge, on a daily basis,” Hendershott said. “We are able to meet all of those testing requests so far.”
In terms of test-result turnaround, Hendershott said in the cases where an individual’s symptoms are particularly severe, these critical test results have been fast-tracked for feedback in 24 hours. He added the county is still experiencing some turnaround times of up to a week.
“That’s partially dependent on the severity of getting the results of those tests and which labs those tests are going to,” Hendershott said. “We try to keep a pulse on which labs are experiencing the fastest turnaround times and sending our tests to those labs understanding that most other agencies and medical providers are also watching those trends as well. A lab that is experiencing fast turnaround times today quickly gets overwhelmed and is one of the slower turnarounds tomorrow.”
Though demand for doctor-prescribed tests in the county hasn’t reached capacity for those with the worst COVID-19-like symptoms, the county’s health department maintains there remains “a huge gap” in fully understanding the spread of COVID-19 in Summit County.
To learn more, the county launched its symptom tracker of COVID-19-like symptoms a little over a week ago. Sutor stressed the tracker and the data it shares with the public is not diagnostic of coronavirus’ spread in the county, though it does give a sense of the spread of respiratory illness in the community. As of Saturday, the tracker had nearly 1,300 responses.
“When you look at the people who’ve responded, I think the order of magnitude is instructive when you compare that to the order of magnitude of the positive tests that we’re publishing on a daily basis on the web page of the people who we’re actually testing,” Sutor said.
Hendershott bluntly stated that the surveillance tool was set up to address the county’s lack of testing. Both he and Sutor cautioned the public to digest the tracker’s symptomatic data in context. On Saturday afternoon, the tracker showed an overall trend-line rise in date of symptom onset from 13 people on Feb. 13, to a high of 82 on March 16 back down to three on April 1.
“I think the real reason we are seeing a decline in the amount of respiratory illness over the last couple of days is more reflective of persons that are experiencing illness in the last several days not submitting those results into the system,” Hendershott said. “And we recognize that as a shortcoming with this. We do have plans of pushing that message out to the public reminding them to utilize the tool and put that information in routinely.”
Sutor added the county feels the public shouldn’t look at the chart’s decline and feel the community is seeing a decrease in disease activity.
“Because based on our data for hospitalizations and surveillance we are absolutely not seeing that,” Sutor said.
“We expect that there would be a lag between when people are experiencing symptoms and when they are entering them into the tracker,” Sutor added. “So that’s something for people looking at the graph – particularly that timeline of symptom onset chart – that people should kind of keep that in mind, there is a lag between ‘I’m feeling so sick,’ to, likely a few days later — when they have time and are feeling better – they actually are entering their symptoms into the tracker.”
“Primary care providers, they are giving us information routinely,” Hendershott added. “And they are continuing to see a lot of activity from the community calling them with COVID questions, experiencing symptoms. They are telling us that has not declined at all. In some cases, it continues to increase.”
Nationally, attention has turned to Telluride as it was announced the private company United Biomedical is now working with San Miguel County to test all of its residents for COVID-19 antibodies — the first community in the country to do so. The idea is to learn from an individual’s blood whether there is evidence the person has already been exposed to COVID-19. Theoretically this information can be used to quantify the virus’s spread and aid in making decisions about whether quarantines and restrictions need to continue.
Speaking Friday night, Dr. Sharon Grundy, San Miguel County medical officer, said antibody testing isn’t “the ticket” to opening communities like Telluride back up. She emphasized that social distancing and quarantine for community members remains paramount to eventual victory over coronavirus.
“We are keeping an eye and an ear on that antibody test and trying to evaluate its usefulness,” Hendershott said. “One thing to keep in mind with the antibody test is it usually doesn’t show up as positive until you are anywhere from eight to 30 days into your illness. …so what we are looking at is using the antibody test, potentially, as we’re more on the down side of the curve so that we can start to release people to go back to work if they have a positive antibody test. Because we know they have already been exposed, we know they aren’t spreading the disease. So we are keeping a close eye on that to see how we can best utilize it here in Summit County.”
Hendershott and Sutor lauded Summit locals for their stay-at-home discipline over the past three weeks. Their observations are backed by data. Based on the data of Google users who had opted into location sharing, as of March 29, retail and recreation mobility had dropped 86% from baseline levels. Grocery and pharmacy mobility decreased 73%, parks dropped 74% and workplace decreased 71%.
Summit’s retail and recreation numbers were better than all but Clear Creek and Pitkin counties. The grocery and pharmacy decline was, by far, the best in the state. The workplace percentage decline was slightly behind Eagle and Pitkin. The statewide average drop was 51% for retail and recreation, 27% for grocery and pharmacy, 12% for parks and 40% for workplaces.
According to unacast’s Social Distancing Scoreboard, Summit County earned an A- thanks to data indicating a decrease in average human mobility between 55-70% and a greater than 70% decrease in non-essential visits.
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