Collaborative effort reaches out to the ill in El Jebel with free COVID-19 tests

Wet snow and cold temperatures didn’t deter numerous midvalley residents from jumping at the opportunity Thursday to take free tests to see if COVID-19 is what ails them.

By noon, about 20 people had shown up at an open-sided tent erected in the parking lot of the El Jebel Laundromat for nose swabs. Most patients were screened in advance and recommended for the tests because they have symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. However, other people walked up seeking tests and were accommodated if they were sick.

“We are encouraging people who are sick to get the tests,” said Melina Valsecia, who helped coordinate the testing. “We don’t want people who are healthy to be out.”

Registered nurse Maria McHale and nurse practitioner Lisa Robbiano from MidValley Family Practice in Basalt stood out in the cold for hours, talking to each patient about their symptoms and sticking the swabs far up their noses for samples. Test results are expected within five days.

“You know when you step on dry leaves? I could hear that sound coming from my lungs.” Fabiola Garjales

Robbiano said her experience over the past month at the doctor’s office indicates there is extensive community spread of the coronavirus in the Basalt and El Jebel area. Not only are numerous people showing symptoms, many remain sick for an extended time.

“People are still really sick — three, four weeks later,” Robbiano said.

Fabiola Grajales, 27, of Carbondale, is among local residents fighting a prolonged battle with the coronavirus. She started feeling sick March 2 and was able to get into a respiratory clinic in Rifle for a test March 6. Her test result came back positive March 8.

“Throughout the next week, the symptoms got worse,” she said. “The cough got really bad. I started having shortness of breath. You know when you step on dry leaves? I could hear that sound coming from my lungs.

“You get really bad headaches,” Grajales continued. “You feel like your eyes, they’re going to pop out. I couldn’t smell or taste anything.”

Doctors at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs referred Grajales to Grand River Hospital in Rifle for treatment since she was tested in Rifle. Doctors at Grand River confirmed she had pneumonia and treated her, but didn’t admit her, she said. She self-isolated for 10 days before symptoms disappeared, but a follow-up test showed she still had coronavirus. After more rest, she now feels “90 percent better, maybe 95,” she said.

She learned of the tests in El Jebel on Thursday and came to see if she finally tests negative for COVID-19. She wants to know it is safe to be around her family.

Robbiano was amazed at what Grajales had endured, but said many people sick with coronavirus are facing a tough time. Tests are in short supply.

“We have stories up the wazoo,” she said.

Grajales works in the health care industry and said her knowledge of it and her contacts helped her acquire tests and treatment, with some effort.

“It was hard for me,” she said. “I can’t imagine how hard it would be for other people.”

That’s exactly why the free testing was offered in El Jebel. It’s a collaboration between Eagle County Public Health, MidValley Family Practice and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance, which uses a recreation vehicle to provide everything from health care and food to early-childhood education coordination and workforce development to residents of Eagle County.

Eagle County Public Health has made free swab tests available for use throughout the county, including about 100 tests for the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county.

The MIRA Bus has taken tests on the road. Thursday was the first day the tests were available in El Jebel. The testing will be offered again April 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. People who feel sick must called MidValley Family Practice in advance at 970-927-4666 for a free screening to see if they qualify for a free COVID-19 test.

As part of the collaboration Thursday, Midvalley Family Practice contributed the time for Robbiano and McHale to perform the tests. The MIRA Bus transported the equipment to various testing sites. The bus, actually a 40-foot RV, also provides shelter from the weather, a bathroom and office space for the nurses and other workers.

Valsecia manages the MIRA Bus. Most importantly, she said, the program has established trust and rapport with the people of the El Jebel area, many of whom are Spanish speakers. The MIRA program especially wants to reach out to people who don’t have medical insurance, Valsecia said.

Getting the word out about testing hasn’t been difficult.

“You can see — people are waiting,” she said.

A mix of Latinos and Anglos came for the COVID-19 tests Thursday. Valsecia estimated about 50 tests would be administered through the day.

In addition to the free testing dates, MidValley Family Practice has been seeing a steady parade of patients with coronavirus symptoms for weeks at its Basalt office. Kirstin Boronski, MidValley Family Practice manager, estimated they have seen eight to 14 people per day, with between 75% to 100% being presumptively positive for COVID-19. The office also continues to see patients for other ailments in person rather than conferring with them via teleconference.

“Just because there is coronavirus doesn’t mean acute and chronic illness goes away,” Boronski said.

The practice set up a separate area where personnel could see potential coronavirus patients last month and erected a tent for care outside the office last week.

“Lisa (Robbiano) is an amazing hero,” Boronski said. “She’s been seeing people out in the snow,” Boronski said.

The frontline workers’ heroism continued Thursday. Robbiano and McHale shrugged off toiling in snow showers and temperatures in the mid-30s for six-plus hours. It’s part of the job during a pandemic, they said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Grand River Hospital in Rifle.

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