Archuleta County enters Level Orange Spike in COVID-19 cases continues

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    By Randi Pierce
    Staff Writer

    On Monday, Archuleta County officially landed in Level Orange: High Risk on the state’s COVID dial due to the increased prevalence of COVID-19 in the community, and officials are asking people to take immediate action to avoid further restrictions, including with this week’s Thanksgiving gatherings.

    Colorado is seeing an “unprecedented level” of disease transmission currently, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, indicated Tuesday, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimating that one out of every 49 residents in the state is infected with SARS-CoV-2, which is the highest prevalence since the virus arrived in Colorado.

    Gov. Jared Polis added Tuesday that, at a Thanksgiving gathering with 10 people coming from multiple households, there is a one in four chance someone will be contagious.

    He continued to echo advice and pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state for people to not gather with others outside of their household right now.

    Local officials are also expressing concern with the rate of transmission locally and across the state and the potential effect it will have on the community and health care resources in the coming weeks.

    “COVID-19 is now widespread in Archuleta County community, with daily exposures identified in schools, businesses and special events, and is placing pressure on local hospital capacity. Archuleta County exceeded the Level Orange threshold for new cases on Nov. 13 and since then case growth has accelerated,” a San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) press release states, adding later, “Archuleta County exceeded the Level Red threshold for cases on Nov. 19.”

    Level Orange reduces the legal operating capacity for most businesses from 50 percent to 25 percent and moves last call for alcohol sales to 10 p.m. 

    If Archuleta County is unable to mitigate its transmission rate, the next category on the state’s dial is Level Red: Severe Risk.

    Level Red closes high-risk indoor businesses and events while allowing some businesses to remain open at very limited capacity.

    For information about all phases of the state’s COVID-19 dial framework for public health protections, visit https://covid19.colorado.gov/data/covid-19-dial.

    Archuleta County cases

    Between March 26 (when the first COVID-19 case among Archuleta County residents was reported) and Oct. 31, Archuleta County had 69 cumulative cases according to SJBPH data.

    As of Tuesday, 105 cases have been reported in November, making for a total reported case count of 174.

    Of those, 39 are considered recovered. Another 71 cases among nonresidents have been reported.

    Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC) CEO Dr. Rhonda Webb relayed to The SUN Tuesday that the state estimates there are twice as many cases as are being identified through testing.

    Webb acknowledged that while it’s likely more cases are being identified through increased testing efforts, PSMC is seeing sick patients testing positive for COVID-19.

    Health care concerns

    While PSMC is not currently at capacity, Webb stated the facility has encountered difficulties and delays in transferring patients, both COVID and non-COVID, who need a higher level of care in the last week.

    “We are not to capacity, but we are worried about what’s going to happen two to three weeks” from now, Webb said.

    The CEO further outlined that PSMC has had as many as 30 employees either working from home, working from home with restrictions after exposures, or who are out sick with COVID.

    That, she indicated, can affect the medical center’s ability to care for patients.

    She noted the facility needs to be able to staff its ambulances, emergency room, surgery and other areas.

    Colorado, she added, has twice as many people hospitalized now as it did during the highest point in April. 

    Webb suggested that if people still plan to gather with others outside their household that they, for example, eat outside with as few people as possible or in different rooms, then wear masks while visiting. 

    Essential precautions

    SJBPH expressed the following precautions will be essential to containing the spread of COVID-19 through the winter holiday season: 

    • Stay at home as much as possible and instruct employees to work from home if possible. 

    • Practice physical distancing (at least 6 feet away from another person).

    • Avoid social gatherings with more than one household, especially indoors. 

    • Wear face coverings when in public; the statewide mask order is still in effect in indoor public spaces.

    • Practice good hygiene (washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, etc.).

    • Get tested if you have symptoms or believe you’ve been exposed through a known contact or community interaction. 

    • Don’t go to work, school or social activities if you are sick or have a known or suspected exposure.

    For the most up-to-date information on how to take precautions against the spread of COVID-19, visit SJBPH’s website at: https://sjbpublichealth.org/coronavirus/.

    Testing efforts continue

    “Locally, in the month of November, PSMC has seen much higher demand for testing, a dramatic increase in the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and a significant increase in the number of people with symptoms so serious that they require medical intervention,” a letter from Webb states.

    That letter outlines that, from March through October, PSMC tested 1,259 individuals for COVID.

    In the month of November alone, through Nov. 23, PSMC has tested 1,365 individuals.

    Webb noted that figure only includes on-site testing at PSMC.

    Webb noted that PSMC continues to test symptomatic patients through its clinic, and offers testing to asymptomatic individuals who may have been exposed through drive-through testing to the right rear of the medical center six days per week.

    The drive-thru testing will not be open on Thanksgiving, she noted, and will be open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. next week — shortened hours due to staffing shortages. 

    She suggested that anyone experiencing symptoms should call their provider for advice on how to proceed.

    Webb also cautioned that tests are a “snapshot in time” and a negative test does not mean you won’t later become symptomatic and spread the virus.

    In addition to PSMC, other testing is available locally through other providers and SJBPH. 

    To address community demand for COVID-19 testing, SJBPH is working with PSMC, Archuleta County and the Town of Pagosa Springs to provide free COVID-19 testing on Wednesday, Nov. 25, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The test site is located at the Archuleta County Fairgrounds at 344 U.S. 84. No appointment is needed.

    See www.PagosaSUN.com for any additional testing events to be announced.

    The CDPHE suggests that people with symptoms should always get tested immediately. Symptoms include:

    • Fever or chills.

    • Cough.

    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

    • Fatigue.

    • Muscle or body aches.

    • Headache.

    • New loss of taste or smell.

    • Sore throat.

    • Congestion or runny nose.

    • Nausea or vomiting.

    • Diarrhea.

    Exposure notification
    systems: SJBPH adds text notifications

    SJBPH is also reporting stress to its contact-tracing efforts with the increased virus transmission in its service area.

    To streamline COVID-19 disease investigation and control and decrease the time between positive case investigation and notification of close contacts, SJBPH launched an automated text-message system to notify close contacts of their exposure to COVID-19 and rapidly deliver quarantine instruction.

    Traditional disease investigation and control consists of a case interview of people who have tested positive to identify people (close contacts) who may have been exposed, followed by a direct phone call to the close contacts to deliver quarantine and testing instructions. 

    Throughout the summer, SJBPH staff performed over 2,000 phone calls to cases and contacts. In the last three weeks, cases in both Archuleta and La Plata counties dramatically increased, and SJBPH announced it is no longer able to notify 100 percent of contacts with phone calls. 

    As a result, some close contacts may receive a text message from (855) 681-1645 notifying them of their exposure and providing a link to quarantine and testing instructions.

    “It is critically important for control of COVID-19 that anyone receiving an automated text message from SJBPH follow the quarantine and testing instructions to prevent spread of disease,” Jollon said. “This tool will help us deal with our high recent volume of cases more efficiently and quarantine exposed people faster.”

    The only links within the text message will be to a quarantine letter that may be presented to employers as confirmation of necessity for exclusion from work and to the SJBPH website for testing information and other resources. 

    There have been reports of scam exposure notifications via text message in the past; people should never give personal identifying information to any text or web portal claiming to be public health and the official SJBPH text notification will not ask for any personal information.

    The SJBPH text notification service is separate from the Colorado Exposure Notification phone app, which automatically sends notifications to phones with the app that are identified as being in prolonged proximity to other phones whose owners eventually test positive. 

    SJBPH also encourages all community members to download and use the Colorado Exposure Notification app (www.addyourphone.com), but noted the app does not replace case investigation, contact tracing and contact notification by local public health agencies.