Officials urge continued precautions to keep students in schools

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    By Randi Pierce
    Staff Writer

    San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) is continuing to ask people to exercise increased precautions against COVID-19 as the percentage of cases among school-age individuals increases, more transmissible variants of the disease continue to circulate and spring break arrives.

    Brian Devine, the agency’s deputy incident commander for COVID-19 response, noted Wednesday that almost a quarter of the cases in March have been among school-age individuals but not tied to classroom settings.

    “We are seeing our schools, certainly in Archuleta County, as well as in La Plata County, do an excellent job of controlling transmission within the school setting,” Devine said, noting they have a lot of measures in place and they enforce them well. “We’re not seeing that same kind of dedication to controlling transmission with those populations outside of school.”

    That, he noted, includes extracurricular activities, youth sports and social gatherings where precautions are not being enforced.

    “And that is leading to a real concern for us because not only does it keep our case counts high, it also leads to a lot of exposures and quarantines in schools,” he said.

     There’s a certain point at which the level of quarantine is high enough that it endangers in-person learning for everyone, Devine explained, “and we know that there are substantial education, social and emotional benefits of learning in person in the classroom.”

    He suggested that families take their actions seriously outside of the classroom because of the potential effect it could have on everyone.

    SJBPH is also concerned about spring break, Devine indicated, both those visiting the area while on spring break and those who are leaving the area.

    He noted that while the business and hospitality industries in Colorado are doing a good job emphasizing what the rules are in Colorado, the volume of people expected is concerning.

    “We’re also very concerned about the amount of trouble outgoing for spring break,” Devine said, acknowledging that people have been “cooped up” to some extent over the winter.

    Traveling without good precautions leads to more contacts between households that would otherwise not have those contacts.

    “And we certainly have enough disease for that to spread disease further, especially in families with school-age children who are maybe taking breaks this week,” he said.

    Devine referenced the travel guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which begins with avoiding unnecessary travel.

    He added there are also travel recommendations around quarantine and testing that can help quell the spread upon returning.

    The CDC’s travel recommendations can be found at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html.

    SJBPH, he noted, suggests that the best strategy is to not travel or to not travel far, and to not have contacts outside your household.

    Devine also noted people need to increase, not just maintain, their public health precautions as multiple variants are circulating in southwest Colorado.

    “If we get it right over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be substantially complete with our mass vaccination campaign at the end of this spring and in early summer,” he said. “So we really only need to buckle down and have … this extra dedication to public health precautions for a couple weeks and months. And then we’ll start looking at a much different landscape this summer where we have a lot of people vaccinated and we can start bringing in a relaxation of those prevention measures.”

    That day is not today, he suggested, but may be closer than people realize.

    Testing available

    “SJBPH especially encourages residents of Archuleta County and La Plata counties to be tested for COVID-19, in response to the discovery of variants in people living and working in these communities,” Wednesday’s press release states.

    SJBPH suggests that testing is critical if you have symptoms, believe you’ve been exposed, work in a high-contact job, or if you have been gathering with people outside your household. 

    Additional testing allows public health officials to sequence more samples and identify if COVID-19 variants are more widespread, the agency notes.

    The free COVID-19 testing site at the fairgrounds, located at 344 U.S. 84, continues to be operated in partnership with COVIDCheck Colorado.

    The testing takes place under the all-weather Hughes Pavilion, with the site open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

    You can register for your free test by going to www.covidcheckcolorado.org and selecting “Get My Test.”

    According to a COVIDCheck Colorado flier, “COVIDCheck Colorado uses a highly sensitive and reliable nasal mid-turbinate swab PCR test that is administered by licensed medical professionals. Please arrive wearing a mask.”

    Testing also continues to be available at a number of local health care facilities, including:

    • Archuleta Integrated Healthcare: 264-2104.

    • Pagosa Medical Group (including rapid testing if deemed appropriate by a provider): 372-0456.

    • Pagosa Springs Medical Center: 731-3700. The facility offers testing for symptomatic patients through its clinic and drive-up asymptomatic community testing Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the northwest side of the medical center.