Summit County officials talk about the lack of testing and how to know if the public health order is working
DILLON — It’s been more than three weeks since the new coronavirus arrived in Summit County and more than 10 days since the county enacted its public health order, closing down businesses and asking residents to stay at home.
But how has the public health landscape changed during that time, and how do we interpret whether the measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 are working?
As of Friday morning, the county has recorded 13 positive cases so far, despite being the first known location for the disease in the state. Though, officials aren’t putting much stock into test numbers as proof the disease isn’t spreading in the area.
“What we need to understand is the positive case number is highly under representing what we believe to be happening in our community,” Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said. “We’re in communication with our health care providers who continue to see high volumes of respiratory illness calls. We know that unlike the flu virus, there is no vaccine to prevent infection and no effective treatment to heal people. …
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“We are seeing that areas that are able to do more community-level testing are showing those numbers continue to increase. It wouldn’t be smart to say that wasn’t happening here in our community.”
In Summit County, like much of the country, there is a shortage of available tests. Wineland couldn’t give an estimate on how many tests are coming out of the county each day currently, noting that tests are coming from multiple sources, including St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and the Summit Community Care Clinic, along with some residents getting tested outside of the county.
In a Facebook live post Thursday night, Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said a total of 97 tests have taken place in Summit County since the outbreak began. As of Friday, that number has been updated to 107.
Given the shortage, testing is being heavily prioritized for hospitalized individuals and others in higher risk populations, along with first responders and health care workers. The turnaround time for results continues to grow, as well.
Wineland said tests are being run through the state’s health department, along with a couple of private labs, but that results have been taking between four and eight days to get back due to the volume of tests coming in from around the state. As officials continue to seek out solutions to expand testing in the county, they’ve had to maneuver their way through major gaps in data based on what they’re seeing elsewhere.
“It’s unique,” said Brian Bovaird, the county’s emergency management director. “We’re lacking the data we need locally because we just don’t have the health care system to provide widespread testing. We’re navigating in the dark here. But what’s been helpful is that there is a lot of data coming out globally. The public health team here is trying to pay attention to all the lessons learned. With other communities being further along in the curve than we are, it has been helpful to interpret that data.”
While some county officials initially preached “business as usual” following the first positive case, watching other communities respond to the outbreak might have helped make a difference in the timeline for enacting extreme social distancing measures in Summit.
Though, it might not be until after the pandemic runs its course that we understand the full scope of the efficacy of the county’s response.
“It’s kind of a paradox when you look at what success really is from a public health perspective,” Wineland said. “Success will only happen if we take aggressive steps before they seem necessary. And if they work, it will seem like they were unnecessary. It’s a unique emergency … success will be that we can look back and compare ourselves to other communities that weren’t as quick in putting some of these mitigation strategies in place and looking at what their numbers were, their fatality rates. That will be a measure, as well.”
In the meantime, there are some signs that the county’s efforts are paying off.
Bovaird said his department measures success differently than public health officials, noting his top priorities include keeping the emergency response infrastructure intact and operational. He pointed to three main areas: ensuring the 911 dispatch center remains functional; ensuring the county’s law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services are able to respond to calls effectively; and ensuring the hospital remains open and able to treat critically ill and injured patients.
So far, those goals all have been met.
“Those are all indications that the extreme measures we’re taking are working,” Bovaird said. “Our first case was a couple weeks ago, and I still have very serious concerns about all of those pieces continuing to function how they do. Because we are not out of the woods by any means.”
Both Bovaird and Wineland expressed a relief that the public health order went into effect when it did but couldn’t give any timeline for when businesses will start opening back up and residents would see a return to relative normalcy.
When restrictions do eventually begin to ease, it will most likely happen in phases, with some services being reinstated before others in their order of criticality.
“We’re not going to see a complete opening of the floodgates,” Bovaird said. “That planning effort is happening now.”
In the meantime, officials are asking residents to continue to be patient.
“These strategies are really bold and extreme, but they are going to be temporary,” Wineland said. “We can’t answer when they will be lifted at this point. But with any event that happens, we’re always thinking about recovery — when that will start to happen and how. It’s on our minds, and it’s important for the community to know that.”
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