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Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield counties move to regional testing strategy

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Garfield County Public Health building in Glenwood Springs.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A surge in demand for coronavirus testing with the uptick in new COVID-19 cases nationwide has prompted the western Colorado counties of Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin to manage testing on a regional basis.

Recent referrals for testing — including for people who may be worried but not necessarily symptomatic or at higher risk for serious illness — has caused a backlog of late in obtaining test results.

That wait, sometimes as long as eight days, minimizes the effectiveness of the testing strategy to contain and slow the spread of the disease, public health directors from the three counties said in a joint statement issued Thursday.

“We cannot test and trace our way out of this pandemic,” Heath Harmon, Director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, said in the tri-county news release.

Ultimately, he added, “We need greater compliance on prevention measures from all people in our communities, regardless of whether they are locals or visitors.”

To maximize the testing strategy’s effectiveness, public health departments in the three counties will now coordinate testing efforts to try to achieve great turnaround on test results.

“Testing is a key containment strategy to slow the spread of the disease,” the joint statement reads. “Surges in cases nationwide are stressing the testing components supply chain and the capacity at state and commercial labs cannot keep up with the demand.”

A plan to coordinate testing efforts regionally is being devised by a medical team made up of hospital and public health officials from the three counties.

Details, such as which of the counties would be prioritized for testing depending on rates of infection and other factors are still being worked out.

Ideally, test results need to be turned around within 48 hours to be effective in combating the spread of the disease, public health officials point out. But the increased demand for testing has overloaded test supplies and stressed the ability for state and commercial labs to keep pace, they said.

To ease that strain, the three counties will employ the following testing strategy until state and commercial laboratory capacity can achieve consistent turnaround times of 48 hours or less:

Testing is recommended for

People with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including fever, cough or shortness of breath

People with symptoms and who are at greater risk for severe disease, including hospitalization and death (65 years of age or older, or who have chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, are immunocompromised, are pregnant, or are otherwise considered at high risk by a licensed health care provider)

People who are hospitalized with symptoms consistent with COVID-19

Those who have had close contacts with a confirmed COVID-19 case, as defined and recommended by a local public health agency

People within congregate settings where there may be a broader exposure to COVID-19, as determined by a local public health agency

Testing is not routinely recommended for

People who do not have symptoms and no known close contact exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case

People who are preparing to travel or recently returned from travel who do not have symptoms

Employees who have not had a known close contact exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case

People who are worried, but have not had close contact exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case and do not have symptoms

People who have been confirmed previously and are being retested for release from isolation.

Officials also question the value, from a public health perspective, of people being tested for antibodies to determine if they previously had COVID-19 but are no longer symptomatic

“If you are currently sick, antibody testing cannot determine if that sickness is COVID-19,” according to the joint statement.

Antibody tests measure whether a person has antibodies from a virus, but only after they have recovered.

“These tests should not be done until the patient has been without symptoms for at least seven days and does not have a fever,” according to the release.

Also, “A positive antibody test does not provide complete assurance at this time that someone will be protected from a future COVID-19 infection, and people should continue to take precautions and adhere to (public health safety precautions).”

“We all wish this pandemic would end … (and) go back to our normal ways of living life,” Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said in the release. “The answer to keeping our economy is doable if we have everyone’s buy-in, but only doable if we have everyone’s buy-in.”

That includes wearing a mask in public when social distancing is not possible, staying 6 feet apart, washing hands regularly and staying home when sick.

“We can dramatically reduce spreading the virus,” Long said. “Those very basic actions that we are all getting used to are the ticket to getting back to a new normal.”


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