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Pitkin County: COVID-19 tests to go to certain groups

A healthcare provider puts a fit-tested mask over her face before her next patient at the coronavirus testing location at the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s Aspen Village Location on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The 1,000 COVID-19 tests procured Thursday by Pitkin County will be reserved for residents who have either had symptoms of the virus or fall into a particular group like health care workers, officials said Friday.

The information provided by the tests, which look for antibodies in blood produced by people who have had the disease, will give public health officials a glimpse of the recent past and an idea of how to move forward, said Gabe Muething, Aspen Ambulance director, and Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann.

“With this test, we will get to better understand where it is in our community and how many have been affected,” said Muething, who also serves as one of the commanders of the team managing the area’s virus response. “We hope that those who’ve been infected have some level of immunity.”

The body produces antibodies to fight the virus days after infection, and those antibodies stick around after a person has recovered.

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If health care and public health officials know the community’s level of immunity, they’ll know the percentage of residents who remain to be infected and, thus, know the potential future impact to the area’s health care system, he said. That knowledge becomes more and more important as officials develop strategies to unwind the health orders and begin to restart society, Muething and Koenemann said. Still, COVID-19 is new and not well understood and health care professionals are still not sure if having the disease conveys immunity, though some consensus says it does, Muething said.

“This (testing will provide) just a glimpse,” he said. “We will likely never know if everyone in the community is affected.”

Muething said he and Koenemann and others are still working on the criteria they will use to determine who is tested. But first and foremost are those who’ve been sick with symptoms like fever, chills, body aches and dry cough associated with the virus.

“You have to have had symptoms to have a test,” Muething said. “(That takes) out a lot of our population there.”

Another important area to look at are groups like health care workers, grocery store employees and those who perform other jobs deemed essential, in an effort to determine their immunity, Muething said. Other groups were yet to be determined Friday.

“Our epidemiologists are defining those at this time,” Muething said. “Our goal is to grab from all walks of life to be able to better understand the immunity or lack of immunity in our area.”

The system for “applying” to be one of the 1,000 Pitkin County residents tested had not yet been solidified Friday. However, Muething said it will likely require people to go to Pitkin County Public Health’s website and fill out a questionnaire that will require a decent amount of health and other information, he said.

“We need enough data to guide our strategy,” he said.

Meuthing could not provide a better timeframe for rolling out the application process and getting the testing done, except to say it would be “in a little while.”

The tests purchased by Pitkin County require only a finger-prick to obtain a small blood sample for testing, a process that also requires less protective equipment for those gathering the sample. The tests were manufactured by Aytu Bioscience Inc. of Englewood, which received permission from the FDA late last month to distribute them.

Pitkin County officials were able to secure a spot on a priority list, which led to the tests’ delivery Thursday.

After the county ordered the tests three weeks ago, some officials said they had since learned that they might not be accurate enough because they also identify other coronaviruses besides the one that causes COVID-19.

On Friday, Muething said the public health team handling the outbreak is comfortable with the test and its accuracy.

“There’s no one perfect test on the market and there may never be,” he said. “This one has the accuracy we’re looking for now.”

Officials are “very comfortable with this company” and the test they provided, Muething said.

“It’s got enough accuracy to test and start to get a picture of our community,” he said. “But, again, it’s just a start.”

As of Friday, Pitkin County’s Public Health website reported two people hospitalized at Aspen Valley Hospital with COVID-19 and 34 confirmed total cases in the county so far. The state public health department, however, reported Friday that Pitkin County had 47 positive cases as of Thursday. The discrepancy could not be immediately explained Thursday.

Pitkin County residents will not have to pay for the tests, county Manager Jon Peacock has said.

An effort to test every resident of San Miguel County for COVID-19 antibodies appeared wobbly this week. The county first said it was suspending the effort Tuesday because of concerns about the lab doing the test processing, then apologized two days later and said the project was still on, though the results would be delayed.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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