COVID testing labs popping up in downtown Aspen

Retail spaces being used for private companies helping remove some of the burden for public testing

Aspen’s retail experience might mean to one person buying a fur coat and diamond earrings and to another a bag of pot and some powder skis. The pandemic, now nearly a year old, has spawned another type of specialty retailer downtown — private testing sites for COVID-19.

Aspen COVID Testing, which is part of Englewood-based Rocky Mountain Labs, began operations on the 600 block of East Hyman Avenue with a soft opening Dec. 14 and a public opening Dec. 21. Last week, the Aspen site passed the 4,000-mark in the number of tests given since it opened, the company said.

Vaccinations are top of mind when it comes to combating the coronavirus pandemic these days, but it wasn’t so long ago that limited access to asymptomatic testing was a dominating concern in the Aspen area.

Mountain towns including Aspen, even with its abundance of private wealth and heavy-hitters, lacked widespread testing while such cities as Grand Junction, Denver and Los Angeles had readily available testing sites for people without symptoms of COVID-19.

In Pitkin County, however, widespread testing was not available until the final quarter of 2020, when the Aspen School District starting testing students and staff.

While the public sector has felt the pressure of providing widespread community testing, the private sector has removed some of the burden.

For Aspen COVID Testing, the white whale has been the St. Regis Aspen Resort hotel, where an outbreak in December disrupted its internship program. Two weeks after the outbreak, the St. Regis began widespread employee testing that has accounted for more than 2,400 of those tests, which have been administered on the hotel’s premises in the aftermath of the outbreak.

“It’s easiest for us to go to them,” said Isaac Flanagan, who with Suzanna Lee opened Aspen COVID Testing just over seven weeks ago. St. Regis employees are tested every three days and Aspen Covid Testing has an operation set up on the site.

The company also has a mobile unit that enables high volumes of on-site test collections at other businesses.

Aspen COVID Testing is doing what Stephane De Baets had envisioned for Aspen earlier in the fall — a private company testing downtown employees on a regular basis.

De Baets is the founder and president of the investment firm Elevated Returns, which has controlling ownership of the St. Regis Aspen Resort.

“Most of the positive cases that we found (from the outbreak) were asymptomatic, which means they were completely unaware,” De Baets said.

Aspen COVID Testing officials said the hotel’s positivity rate has been below 1% since the rapid antigen testing program rolled out.

Through Wednesday, the overall positivity rate had been 4.7% since the testing site opened, “drifting upwards in the immediate post-holiday period, and downwards in recent weeks,” the company said.

Aspen Covid Testing takes individual walk-ups, and it has tested employees for its business clients that include Mountain Chalet and Pitkin County Dry Goods. They test both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients using PCR tests, which stands for polymerase chain reaction and are done by taking a nasal or saliva sample.

De Baets said the regular testing frequency keeps St. Regis employees motivated to do what’s necessary to better their odds of not contracting the disease — social distance, wear face coverings, avoid large crowds.

“Rapid widespread testing is definitely a weapon that people should be using to fight the pandemic,” he said. “There is a cost to it, but I think the benefit outweighs the costs.”

Aspen Covid Testing’s help-wanted advertisements earlier this year rang like a call to action: “As this is a brand-new lab site, we need several adaptable team players flexible with fluctuating hours and workload, enthusiastic about playing a leading role squashing the Covid-19 pandemic in this community.”

Commercial property broker Karen Setterfield helped arrange its lease above L’Hostaria. The lab’s lease runs through the spring, but so long as COVID-19 has a presence, the site could stay longer, she said.

Aspen Covid Testing can process tests and give results within a day or an hour, depending on what the individual customer is willing to pay. They also do house visits and offer group rates.

In the event a person tests positive, the lab sends word to the county and state public health departments.

“We are mandated to report to the state and we also work with the county to report,” Lee said.

The company said its published rates will likely drop soon when it can increase its overall testing capacity with an upgraded booking system.

“We offer an array of customized employer pricing options and discounted community support pricing to our local Aspen labor force,” the company said. “We would never turn anyone away for lack of ability to pay and are eager to begin working with the city, county and state to receive public testing support via CARES Act. The rates we’ve suggested to those entities are about half of what they had previously been paying to other out-of-state testing vendors.”

Aspen landlord Mark Hunt leased property at 315 E. Hyman to another private testing facility, Same Day Testing. Self-payer rates go from $125 to $175 for rapid antigen and RT-PCR tests. Clark’s Market has also gotten into the game.

Aspen has other testing supported by public dollars and are free to patients.

Roaring Fork Free Covid Testing does saliva PCR test from MicrogenDx after discontinuing Curative. It has a free testing site located behind Aspen City Hall and another one at the Aspen Business Center, as well as at other locations throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.

Results from their saliva test are generally available within 48 to 72 hours.

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