Aspen drive-through COVID-19 testing site proposed; county gets 1,000 tests from state

A tester prepares to administer a swab test at a drive-in COVID-19 testing site on Oct. 27, 2020, in Federal Heights.
David Zalubowski/AP

Pitkin County public health officials are working toward opening a free, drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Aspen that will not require a doctor’s prescription, the public health director said Tuesday.

The site ­— to be run by a community nonprofit that provides preventative health services — will mirror a similar drive-thru testing site Aspen Valley Hospital is preparing to open in Basalt next week to help uninsured or underinsured residents who had trouble obtaining the mandatory doctor’s prescription for a COVID test.

“A lot of work is going on … to really address the testing barrier we have in this community right now,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann told county commissioners Tuesday. “Other conversations are happening about employer-based testing and other community-based testing sites.”

One of the criticisms of Pitkin County’s current testing process, which takes place at Aspen Valley Hospital, is that the hospital requires a doctor’s prescription, which can incur a cost depending on the doctor. The hospital does not charge anyone for COVID-19 tests, though it does bill insurance companies for the procedure. AVH eats the cost of tests for those without insurance, as well as the costs not covered by insurance, said Dave Ressler, hospital CEO.

The proposed Aspen site and the Basalt site ­— which opens Nov. 4 outside AVH’s critical care facility at the Mid Valley Health Institute — are meant to function as a relief valve for those residents, Ressler said.

“It’s part of the system of testing we’re working to create with the county,” he said. “We’re ramping up for winter. We’re concerned about winter and having more people here.”

In fact, AVH, the county and others are trying to establish at least one more testing site in Pitkin County outside of Basalt and Aspen “to make sure we have enough capacity for the winter,” Ressler said.

The logistics of the Aspen drive-thru site are still being worked out, Koenemann said, with the county in talks with Community Health Services to run it.

“We’re still figuring out the hows of it,” she said.

The tests that will be used at both drive-thru facilities are known as “curative” tests, which can be administered with less safety equipment, she said. Those being tested would swab their own cheek, drop it into a container and hand it back to a medical professional, Koenemann said.

The test is then sent to a lab in California, with results coming back within 48 hours, she said.

Pitkin County Public Health received 1,000 curative tests from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and plans on dividing them between the Aspen and Basalt drive-thru sites, Koenemann said.

“They are prioritized for people who are underinsured or uninsured,” she said.

Local public health officials will speak with CDPHE officials Wednesday about how that testing effort might be supported by the state beyond the 1,000 tests, Koenemann said.

Meanwhile, the Basalt site ­— which also will be able to administer other COVID-19 tests, as well — is set to open Nov. 4, Ressler said, and will be open Wednesday through Friday. Because a doctor’s order is still necessary, one of the hospital’s physicians will have a standing order at the site, he said.

Those who want a test should not just show up.

In order to sign up for a test, go to Aspen Valley Hospital’s website and fill out a questionnaire about symptoms or why a COVID test is necessary, he said. The requester will then be assigned a time to show up. The sign-up system on the website is not yet available, though it should be by next week, Resssler said.

The drive-thru site will be staffed three days a week, while the Aspen site, once it is up and running, will likely be staffed on days Basalt is not open, he said.

Residents can get tested at AVH seven days a week, where a doctor’s prescription will remain necessary. Ressler said the hospital would prefer that people’s primary care physicians be involved in the process, so it will not change for those with doctors.

Pitkin County’s COVID-19 incidence rate, as of Tuesday, was at 129.5 per 100,000 population, according to the state’s “Corona Dial.” If it rises above 175 and remains there for two weeks, the county would move from Level 2 restrictions to harsher Level 3 restrictions.

The county has experienced several outbreaks recently, mostly due to informal gatherings, and officials are worried that Saturday’s Halloween festivities could lead to a spike in cases, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Tuesday. He urged people to avoid crowds during the holiday this year.

Gov. Jared Polis and the state health department moved several counties into more restrictive levels this week, while reminding counties that they can be moved more than one level at a time if data warrants it.

“It is concerning right now where state and national numbers are headed,” Peacock said. “And we remain concerned about the number of outbreaks we have and our incidence (rate).”

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