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Official: Testing strategy esssential to opening Aspen

Nurse practitioner Lisa Robbiano, left, tests Helena Guerra for COVID-19 at the MIRA testing bus in El Jebel on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Guerra had a sore throat and wanted to make sure she wouldn’t pass along the virus to her daughter.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Pitkin County’s chief executive urged commissioners Tuesday to spend at least $1 million to build local community-testing infrastructure for COVID-19 that will allow Aspen to resume normal life.

“We have to figure this out because this is the safe way to reopen … and allow people to resume their lives,” County Manager Jon Peacock said Tuesday during the commission’s weekly work session. “(Federal and state authorities) are relying on local governments to do this with very little support.

“Counties are left to do it on their own.”

Much of the focus of late has been on the expiration and easing of restrictive, stay-at-home public health orders and which businesses or services might be next to open back up, Peacock said. But while those things are important, they miss the larger point.

“Instead of thinking about incremental changes,” he said, “we need to focus on how to build a box-in strategy.”

A “box-in strategy” involves, first and foremost, getting the virus transmission rate under control, Peacock said. According to Aspen Valley Hospital data showing a slowing COVID-19 infection rate and solid, if not exceptional, local compliance with social-distancing requirements, Pitkin County has achieved that, he said.

“We shut it down,” Peacock told commissioners Tuesday. “We did it really well. You should be really proud of the public health team.”

(Through Monday there have been 58 confirmed cases in Pitkin County and two deaths since March 8, according to the state’s data.)

The next step is the actual “boxing in.” Public health officials must be able to test everyone in the county who turns up with COVID-19 symptoms, and those test results must come back within 12 to 24 hours, he said.

Those infected have to be isolated, and contact tracers must go out into the community and find everyone whom those who test positive have come into contact with, Peacock said. All those who were in contact with the person whom tests positive for the virus must be quarantined and monitored, he said. Those who develop symptoms must be tested and isolated and the contact tracing begins again.

“This is what communities or countries … are doing to reintroduce activity,” Peacock said. “It’s a roadmap for stair-stepping (down) or easing the public health orders.”

Board Chairman Steve Child asked a question that’s been echoing across the country lately because of the lack of a cohesive federal strategy to confront and fight the coronavirus. He wanted to know what Pitkin County would do once tourists from all over the world return, possibly bringing more virulent strains of the virus to Aspen and Pitkin County.

Such an event could “smack us upside the head,” Child said.

Peacock agreed.

“That’s why building a box-in infrastructure before we open up is so important,” he said.

Building the infrastructure will be costly, Peacock said, but not doing it and living with constant, restrictive public health orders will likely cost more.

“We can’t do it halfway and open up our tourist economy,” he said.

County and public health officials want to have a box-in strategy plan put together by the end of the week, Peacock said. It will undoubtedly include plans to hire between 15 and 18 people to act as contact tracers and to monitor patients in quarantine and isolation.

“We need some people to help us out,” Peacock said.

That number of new hires is based on Pitkin County’s population, which by most estimates is just under 18,000 residents, he said. Generally, health departments will need one contact tracer per 1,000 residents, the county’s public health director has said.

Peacock estimated that building the box-in strategy, including hiring contact tracers, will probably cost between $1 million and $1.2 million.

Commissioner Patti Clapper noted that, like nearly every business and governmental entity, Pitkin County’s revenue is dropping and commissioners are “looking at major deficits in the county budget.” She said she realized the testing was important, though she wondered how to pay for it.

Peacock said the county will initially retrain some existing employees as contact tracers, though as the economy and society gradually open back up, those employees will be needed at their previous jobs and will need to be replaced by additional hires. Covering the cost is where money from the state and federal governments, when and if it comes, will be “so important,” he said.

“This is our challenge,” Peacock said. “We’re looking to try and scale up and allow more of normal activities to take place. It will take time, but we really need to start.”

Pitkin County is preparing to embark on its first community testing run after procuring 1,000 tests that read COVID-19 antibodies in the blood. The exact plan of whom will be tested and when has not yet been publicly revealed, though officials are putting that plan together.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury highlighted Gov. Jared Polis’ comments Monday singling out Pitkin County for its community testing efforts. However, she pointed out that local officials like herself were not at all satisfied with the testing efforts they’ve had to deal with up to this point, which have not been substantially supported by the state.

Polis on Monday also said neighboring Eagle County will likely be one of the first Colorado counties to open. Commissioner George Newman suggested keeping a close eye on the situation next door, and Peacock said officials will certainly pay attention to what happens there in the next few weeks.

“We want to be a little more cautious,” Peacock said.

Pitkin County has already dispensed a little more than $1.1 million to county residents who lost jobs and needed help with rent, food and other expenses. That money — an average of $1,116 per request — went toward 988 requests for assistance and benefited 1,647 people, Peacock said.

More than 80% of the requests were for rent or mortgage assistance.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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