Lou Reese isn’t necessarily a morning yoga person. It’s an unapologetic admission he owns with a certain amount of pride.
“I’m like the worst person in the world to do yoga with in the morning,” he explained. “I am a loud, excited and talkative morning person. Everyone hates to be around me in the morning.”
But during a previously planned tripped to Alaska recently, Reese couldn’t help but think about how the current COVID-19 virus is affecting the world, especially since it reached the United States over the last couple weeks.
As co-owner, along with his wife Mei Mei Hu, of United Biomedical Inc., Reese had an idea regarding the company’s recently developed COVID-19 antibody blood test, which was federally approved Monday under emergency circumstances as the country continues to battle the pandemic.
“Things got really weird when we were gone. It was like a week. The world changed in that week. So I go into yoga mid-week, and I’m sitting there,” he explained. “I say, ‘You know, I got this idea. The way to do this is in San Miguel County.’ The reason is it’s exactly the best-in-class location for rolling it out. The other part is I know the community.”
The company approached county officials about providing free virus testing through the company’s subsidiary c19 to all county residents late Tuesday night. Officials announced the new partnership Wednesday during a special meeting. The public-private partnership has the potential to be a model for the rest of the nation as testing availability has been limited across the country. The plan is to start rolling out testing as early as next week, beginning in the Town of Telluride.
“The only reason we’re starting in Telluride is because it’s the highest-density area, then we’ll roll it out neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Susan Lilly, county public information officer. “The relationship and the partnership happened quickly. Now we’re doing our best to act efficiently to get this rapidly deployed so that we can help mitigate against what could be catastrophic consequences from COVID-19.”
Emergency first-responders and medical personnel, along with their immediate families, were tested Thursday, as the workers will be on the front lines once testing starts and at the highest risk of exposure.
While logistics of where tests will take place were still being ironed out as of press time Thursday afternoon, officials said they’d like to systematically test the nearly 8,000 county residents within a 30-day period as soon as possible. Testing sites like the one the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment set up at the Lawson Hill intercept lot Tuesday may be created in conjunction with door-to-door tests.
“It’s going to require flexibility on our part because we have a dynamic county with different population sets,” Lilly said. “ … What we do in Norwood might be different than Egnar might be different than Placerville might be different than Mountain Village, etc.”
Individuals would be tested, required to self-isolate for 14 days and then tested again at the end of the two-week period. Results, which will indicate whether or not a person had fought off or is fighting the virus, would be available within 48 hours — a significant difference than the current timeline of four to seven days. Officials won’t force anyone who does not want to be tested to comply. Consent and general information forms will be required before an individual is tested. Dr. Sharon Grundy explained officials will not be stringently checking for proof of residency, adding that if someone is living here and “psychologically” considers themselves a resident then they’re eligible, more specifically if someone is a second homeowner and can live here without support for two weeks to a month.
“We’re here to receive you and take care of you,” she said.
The company is covering all costs associated with providing and completing the tests. The COVID-19 blood test was developed within the last three months as the company’s chief scientific officer Dr. Chang Yi Wang, who founded United Biomedical Inc. in 1985 and is Hu’s mother, developed a similar test for the SARS epidemic during the early 2000s.
“It was very quick. Our chief scientific officer worked on SARS over 15 years ago. When we saw COVID coming over, she basically felt compelled that this is something that we need to work on,” Hu explained. “We leveraged everything from the learnings of that SARS experiment, that blood antibodies test, to quickly come up to speed and develop this antibody test.
“Usually it takes about a year to develop, but we have to applaud the FDA for really recognizing the urgent need for testing and making it easier for folks with high quality tests to get out there.”
County officials, like others in the field, have been frustrated about the lack of testing availability across the nation. As of Thursday, the county had administered 38 tests, with 13 coming back negative. They're still waiting on results for the other 25.
Grundy explained how officials will handle and monitor tests. A person who tests negative twice is at risk of contracting the virus, while a person who tests positive twice is in the clear.
“You had it. You may have been asymptomatic or it might have been (what you thought was) a cold you had over Christmas. You’re safe. You have produced the antibodies,” she said.
If someone tests negative initially, but has symptoms then tests positive after 14 days then they’ve been spreading the virus.
“You will know that you had active COVID-19. You were spreading it, so people around you, your close contacts, need to be careful and make sure they get tested if they weren’t already tested, then we’d want to retest them in 14 days,” Grundy said.
Someone with no symptoms who tests negative initially then positive still had active COVID-19, but not as severe. After the two tests, officials will continue to monitor individuals who they think need to be, Grundy said.
“This isn’t just two tests we’re doing and walking away,” she said. “We’ll be able to keep doing this test.
“ … The disclaimer about all of this is we don’t know enough about this virus, but we can’t all stay in containment forever.”
The county public health department also announced a shelter-in-place order Wednesday, meaning all county residents are recommended to stay at their residence, except for trips to receive or administer essential services, like going to the grocery store or to seek medical attention.
“This rule in and of itself is to protect the public and that weighs on my shoulders,” said Grace Franklin, county public health director.
She also issued several more public health orders Wednesday. All public gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. All events at daycare centers, childcare centers, home child care centers, private schools, day schools, community and recreational centers, ice rinks, libraries, and food-serving establishments are prohibited. Bars and restaurants are still allowed to continue take-out and delivery services. All non-essential county businesses were ordered to close to the public. All short-term lodging operations were suspended. Visitors and non-resident homeowners were directed to leave the county and return home as quickly and safely as possible. The orders will be in place until at least April 3 and be reviewed on an ongoing basis.
Testing and isolation are the two most effective methods in battling the virus, Dr. Christine Mahoney of the Telluride Regional Medical Center explained Wednesday. Officials explained that it is past the point of containment, and their number one priority at this point is saving as many lives as possible.
Hu explained the company is also working on a vaccine that is currently in animal testing.
“We got an awesome vaccine platform that’s been in humans and commercialized. … If all goes well, we plan to be in humans in August or September,” she said.
The company has been studying Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's, including completing several FDA clinical trails, but the COVID-19 research has taken precedence.
Wang is the inventor and author of over 100 patents and peer-reviewed publications. Hu was named to Fortune 40 under 40 and Time 100 Next lists, and is named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Reese was EY Entrepreneur of the Year NY finalist and is a member of YPO.
“We just hope that we can serve our community, that we can be a model for why it’s important to test, to lend good information to the rest of country,” Reese said. “If it proves successful, I hope other communities will adopt it as a best-in-class model.”
When asked what he’d like to say to the community, Reese referred to one of his favorite quotes.
“There’s a person who is much smarter than us that said ‘I am we and we are.’ It means that the ego, the I, goes away and turns into thinking about the people around you, and that turns into thinking about everything else that exists around you and the whole community and the world, and how it all interacts and how we fit in there,” he said. “San Miguel County is a unique group of people that I really admire. I’m honored to be a part of the community, and we love you guys. There’s nothing that we won’t do to help, so here we are.”