When it comes to coronavirus testing, Summit County is playing catch-up
Widespread community testing didn't arrive in Summit County until last week
FRISCO — Researchers estimate a vaccine for the new coronavirus is 18-24 months away. Until then, experts agree that widespread testing and social distancing are the only tools to fight the spread of the virus. In Summit County, performing this level of testing has been a challenge — until recently.
About 550 people have been tested since Summit County’s first positive case March 5, while neighboring counties have been able to test many more. In Eagle County, which has been considered ahead of the nation in preparation, 2,468 people had been tested as of Monday. With 1,017 tests, nearby Routt County is also far ahead of Summit.
More than half of Summit County’s tests are from the past week, when testing first became available to anyone with COVID-19 symptoms. On April 21, Vail Health started testing at its Howard Head Sports Medicine clinic in Silverthorne. The next day, St. Anthony Summit Medical Center started offering daily testing at its Centers for Occupational Medicine Clinic in Frisco. Before that, tests were saved for people with moderate to severe symptoms, health care workers, first responders and high-risk individuals.
Throughout the pandemic, the Summit County Public Health Department has relied on help from community partners like St. Anthony’s, Vail Health and the Summit Community Care Clinic, which have contracts with labs. Even with the partnerships, Summit County has been slow to achieve the level of testing required to reopen the county.
“We’ve been struggling here, just as many across the nation have, with getting testing available,” Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said. “It has to do with what labs people are contracted with and what the provider’s capacity is to do the testing as well as their ability to replenish the tests they do.”
Centura Health’s strategy
In addition to testing provided through St. Anthony’s, Centura Health has helped the county partner with Stadium Medical to provide mobile testing. However, some community members feel Centura isn’t doing enough.
At a Breckenridge Town Council meeting April 21, Mayor Eric Mamula announced the council had written a letter to Centura expressing frustrations.
Breckenridge council member Gary Gallagher believes Centura could have done more sooner in the pandemic to be on par with Vail Health.
- Positive: 146
- Hospitalized: 41
- Deaths: 2
Source: Summit County Public Health
- Positive: 15,284
- Hospitalized: 2,697
- Deaths: 777
Updated at 2:30 p.m. May 1.
“The fact that Summit County has had to contract now with Vail Health, a private health system … if I were Centura or I were St. Anthony’s, I’d be pretty embarrassed,” he said.
St. Anthony CEO Lee Boyles said the hospital has followed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as they are released.
The CDC recommends prioritizing testing in three tiers:
- Tier 1: Health care workers, first responders and those hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms
- Tier 2: People who are immunocompromised or at a high risk, such as those 65 and older
- Tier 3: Anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
It wasn’t until the Vail Health clinic began testing locally April 21 that tier three patients could be tested in Summit County. Centura began testing anyone with symptoms at its clinic the next day.
“We opened (Centura’s Centers for Occupational Medicine) clinic as a long-term testing site for the community,” Boyles said. “We know this is a marathon, not a sprint. We wanted to have a site that would be able to be there for the long haul.”
Gallagher said it’s “too little, too late.”
“We need broader testing in order to start opening our economy more quickly,” he said. “All you need to do is look at our neighbor Eagle County and just how effective they were right from the get-go.”
Boyles said the hospital is doing the best it can to provide testing to the community and that it always has been conservative with tests to “prepare for the worst.”
“If we had the testing available, we would test as many people as we possibly could,” he said. “Those tests just have not been available for us.”
With the national testing shortage, many hospitals including St. Anthony’s have had to buy tests privately. Boyles said Centura’s strategy is to use the highest-quality tests available.
“We’ve run into issues such as incomplete orders or fraudulent supplies,” he said. “We focus on the highest-quality tests we can get our hands on.”
How Eagle County got ahead
Vail Health began preparations for the virus in January when cases started to mount in China, said Chris Lindley, who is leading the Vail hospital’s COVID-19 task force.
“When in January we first started hearing about what was happening in Wuhan, Chris was sitting next to me in another meeting and said, ‘Hey I’m actually really worried that this one is going to be worse than SARS,’” hospital CEO Will Cook said. “I think I did my best to not look at him and roll my eyes.”
Cook said the Vail Health team used the time in between the outbreak in China and when the first case was reported in the U.S. on Jan. 21 to set up testing centers outside of critical areas like emergency departments as well as forge partnerships with Eagle County’s public health department.
Vail Health also used its partnership with Colorado Mountain Medical to provide testing at outpatient clinics so people could be tested by their doctors. In addition to getting those clinics on board, the two groups also worked to designate three COVID-19 clinics and a drive-through testing center.
In total, there are nine testing locations available to the Eagle County community, Cook said. Those include the emergency department, the three COVID-19 clinics, the drive-through testing center, three Colorado Mountain Medical clinics and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance bus, which is a mobile clinic that serves people living in denser environments like mobile homes.
“It’s not just about having the tests and being willing to administer them,” Lindley said. “It’s how do you get them out to all the various places where patients actually receive care?”
In addition to Centura’s Centers for Occupational Medicine site, Centura owns three High Country Health Care clinics in Summit County. Centura has not provided testing at any of those clinics.
“There was really no clear way to not commingle susceptible COVID patients with people who are totally healthy and unrelated to anything COVID,” Boyles said about Centura’s thought process on testing locations.
Routt County’s approach
Unlike Eagle and Summit counties, the majority of testing in Routt County has been done through its public health department.
While Routt County’s approach has closely aligned with recommendations from the CDC and state department of health, the county public health department had one unique strategy. According to reporting by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, when testing supplies were limited, Routt County officials privately bought components of the test kits.
Both Centura Health and Vail Health provide testing for anyone with symptoms of the virus, including headache, fever, muscle aches, cough and sore throat.
Centura Health testing
- When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to noon on weekends
- Where: Centura’s Centers for Occupational Medicine, 18 School Road, Frisco
- Contact: 970-668-5584
Vail Health testing
- When: Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays
- Where: 265 Tanglewood Lane, Silverthorne
- Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
During the week of April 6, Routt County was able to expand testing to include those who are immunocompromised. On April 10, two members of the National Guard arrived in Routt County to help with testing and organization, according to reporting from the Steamboat Pilot & Today. On April 13, the county started hosting community testing days for anyone with symptoms.
UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs has worked with the Routt County public health department to provide testing through a mobile testing center at the hospital. The hospital also acts as a collection center for the tests, so patients can get results quickly.
Dr. Richard Zane, UCHealth’s chief innovation officer, said as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approved the coronavirus test for hospital use, the UCHealth system worked quickly to develop tests for all of its hospitals and purchase the reagents used in the tests.
“As soon as this became a known pandemic and a known virus, we did a number of things all at the same time,” Zane said. “Our own scientists started developing their own tests. … As soon as the manufacturers made it known they were applying for an emergency use authorization, we got on the list to purchase the reagents.”
Zane said three of the tests offered at UCHealth hospitals are developed by the system’s scientists.
As the Summit County community continues to fight the virus, Boyles said Centura plans to keep playing a role in providing testing for the community.
“Going forward, I don’t think by any means we are out of the woods yet in regards to COVID,” he said.
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