Pitkin County officials rethink community testing plan, want to be ‘strategic, thoughtful’
Though local residents have been asking and pushing for a broad-based, community-wide coronavirus testing program, Pitkin County public health officials are putting the brakes on the effort for the time being.
“As we dig into it … there are some real challenges,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Thursday during a special regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners. “So we’re going to be taking a little bit of a step back to look at other vendors.”
Peacock announced last week that the county had made contact with an Englewood biotech company, which had recently received FDA approval for a COVID-19 test, and been put on a priority list for at least 1,000 tests. At the time, local public health officials felt the test would be ideal because it requires a finger prick rather than a nasal swab, making it easier and safer to collect, while it returns results quickly and on the spot.
However, the company has provided no more information since then about when those tests might be delivered, Peacock said. Also further research by an Aspen Valley Hospital doctor about that finger-prick test indicates that it also might react with other coronaviruses, thereby possibly providing false COVID-19 positives, he said.
“The specificity of the (Englewood company’s) test is not what we originally thought,” Peacock said Thursday. “We’re still in line (to receive them) but we’re exploring other options.”
Unfortunately, those other options are not ideal, either.
Many have cited the free testing in San Miguel County as an example of something that might be done in Pitkin County. However, that test is, so far, not accepted by the FDA or the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, and may have its own issues, sources have said.
An AVH doctor who spoke Wednesday at a meeting of the Pitkin County Board of Health said the San Miguel County antibody test may not pick up symptoms until seven days after they appear, while all 600 tests done so far in that county had come back negative, which struck some as odd. Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman cited that information Thursday and urged residents to remain calm on the issue of community testing.
“I know people are anxious,” he said. “(Local public health officials) are being very thorough in vetting all these tests.”
Gabe Muething, Aspen Ambulance director and one of the commanders of the team managing the local coronavirus outbreak, said at Wednesday’s meeting that Pitkin County is ready to plunk down cash for coronavirus tests when they find one that works for this community.
But the bottomline is that all coronavirus tests have pros and cons and officials — with the help of AVH medical staff — need to “step back and match this urgency with facts” to find the best one for Pitkin County, Peacock said.
“It seems like this is becoming more confusing,” Commissioner George Newman said Thursday.
To help alleviate that issue, Pitkin County has hired an epidemiologist and a doctor, who previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and has experience in virology, Peacock said. The two new temporary hires will help county public health officials further plan the response to COVID-19, including future tweaks to public health orders, how to unwind those orders when the time comes and how to go about community testing, he said.
On that last question, the two new hires will help county officials determine the questions of why and how. Those purposes, for example, could be to track the disease and find out the extent to which the community is infected, track quarantine cases or continue testing solely for medical treatment, Peacock said.
“We’re trying to bring the best minds to the table for help with planning,” he said. “I wish I had 17,000 tests in a box next to me … but doing it right is important.”
Other public health officials echoed that statement at Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting.
“We’re looking at all the testing options and trying to be strategic and thoughtful,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said.
Dr. Kimberly Levin, an emergency room doctor at Aspen Valley Hospital, said it could be dangerous to purchase the wrong test for community testing, which might yield high numbers of false positives and negatives and provide a false picture of the virus situation in Pitkin County.
“That’s something to be extremely careful of,” Levin said.
The county’s new coronavirus hires will be paid for using $350,000 in funds recently appropriated by county commissioners on an emergency basis, Peacock said. County officials asked the state for assistance, but were rebuffed, he said, and no assistance appears forthcoming from the federal government.
Peacock emphasized that officials understand both the need for community testing and the community’s desire for it, and that they’re working furiously in partnership with AVH doctors to identify the best option.
Next week, crews will begin making improvements to the Roaring Fork Whitewater Park in Basalt, including tweaks to the waves, installing a boardwalk and upgrades to the Fisherman’s Park boat ramp.
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