A look at the COVID-19 testing stations inside the Telluride Intermediate School gym over the weekend. (Photo courtesy of San Miguel County)

San Miguel County officials have said mass community COVID-19 testing is essential in managing the potential spread of the virus throughout the communities. Collecting pertinent data is paramount to that plan. Starting in the East End of the county last weekend, the free, voluntary c19 antibody blood tests were administered in the West End on Thursday.

Officials released the first round of results this week. Out of 986 tests, approximately 97 percent, or 955 people, were negative. Approximately 2 percent (23 people) were “indeterminate,” which officials consider negative, though there is an increased chance that those individuals will convert to positive once tested again after the 14-day isolation period. One percent (eight people) of those tests were positive. Including the 645 first responders, health care providers and their immediate families who were initially tested, less than 2 percent of countywide results are positive or indeterminate, while 98 percent are negative, as of press time Thursday afternoon.

Those who received indeterminate results were notified by public health officials and told to self-isolate for 14 days according to their symptoms or when they received their results. Officials are recommending some people also complete a swab test, according to county public information officer Susan Lilly. 

New county public health orders were also announced Thursday, including extending the current shelter-in-place order through May 1 and continuing best physical distancing practices. Full-time residents are also discouraged from traveling outside of the county for more than two days. If someone does decide to travel somewhere for two days or more, they must quarantine for 14 days upon coming back. Officials are also asking full-time residents not to leave the county for any non-essential travel and to observe best public health practices if they do.

“Don't’ go to Montrose and shop if it is not 100 percent, absolutely essential,” Lilly said.

Homeowners who are not full-time residents and come to the county must quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival. Lilly explained that includes not leaving their residence for essential services.

“That means no post office, no grocery store,” she said. “If you arrive in this county as a second homeowner, you should plan on quarantining and being self-sufficient for 14 days.

Playground equipment is also off limits since it’s a breeding ground for germs.

“They’re really critical to help mitigate this devastating disease and its impact here,” Lilly said of the new orders. “We’re seeing devastation across the country, and we’re doing everything we can to avoid that here.”

Officials explained what quarantine means in terms of separating from others. 

“People who are asked to quarantine are to remain home for 14 days from the time of exposure,” according to a news release. “ … It also means only brief time outside the home when absolutely necessary, such as letting a dog out. In cases like this it is imperative that the person severely restrict their movement and stay at least 6 feet away from anyone else.”

As the virus began to impact places across the country throughout March, medical officials stated during several emergency meetings that the virus was most likely already in the area, but tests were limited at the time. Local couple Mei Mei Hu and Lou Reese, co-owners of United Biomedical Inc. and founders of the company’s subsidiary c19, reached out to officials and offered free blood tests for all willing county residents. The turn around time to receive the results was also shortened to two to three days. Though there aren’t a high number of positive cases, the recent results confirm that San Miguel County is not immune to the pervasive virus. 

“These results should alert people that this virus is here,” Dr. Sharon Grundy, county chief medical officer, said in a news release. “We need to take our public health directives seriously and shelter in place and practice physical distancing.”

On Wednesday, the San Miguel County Department of Public Health and Environment announced six new positive COVID-19 cases.

Three of the new cases were from the group of 100 tested by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the National Guard March 17 in Lawson Hill. County officials called the three individuals Tuesday night after learning that the CDPHE released the positive cases on its state website without notifying the county or the individuals of their results, Lilly explained.

“We needed to notify (the people who tested positive) and found out that CDPHE didn’t notify them,” she added. 

The three people who tested positive after CDPHE swab testing are a 73-year-old man who did not travel recently, a 21-year-old female who traveled abroad and a 22-year-old male who recently traveled. All three self isolated and are feeling well as they recover, according to Lilly.

Officials have expressed frustration with the CDPHE process. The county hasn’t received the results of all 100 tests, though approximately 20 to 30 people have been notified by the CDPHE that they tested negative, Lilly explained. County officials expected results within a week of testing.

“We are very frustrated with their process, they’re delay and notification is not what we expected,” she added.

Grace Franklin, county public health director, echoed that sentiment and said she was not pleased with the notification process. County health officials are working to get clarification from CDPHE about the remaining CDPHE swab tests.

The fourth new county case is a 28-year-old woman who returned from a high-risk geographical area earlier this month and experienced symptoms similar to that commonly associated with the virus. She immediately self isolated from other members in her household. A health care provider with the Telluride Medical Regional Medical Center did a swab test with safety protocols in place. Public health officials were notified of the positive test result, which indicates active disease at the time of the testing, Tuesday night. The patient, who is recovering well, was notified by public health officials and will continue to self isolate for a total of 14 days since her symptoms began.

The fifth and sixth new cases — a 67-year-old female who had a travel history and a 50-year-old female — were announced late Wednesday. The 67-year-old self isolated and is recovering well. Late Thursday, officials announced the eighth positive case — a 53-year-old male who traveled domestically recently.

The first positive case of COVID-19 in the county was reported March 19, as a 54-year-old man who had travelled domestically received results of a county administered swab test. Officials said the man self isolated and is recovering well.

While the state is under a shelter-in-place order, officials have continually stressed the importance of physical distancing and self-isolation, if necessary.

Grundy said the people who recently tested positive followed proper protocol in self-isolating and notifying immediate family and contacts of their condition.

“To the extent we have new positive cases, we are pleased that each of these individuals did an excellent job self-isolating and all are recovered or recovering well,” she said.

With increased testing, more positive cases are inevitable, but officials continue to reiterate the importance of following public health orders and recommendations. It can make all the difference.

“We need to remind people that it is critical that they self-isolate if they are sick, even without a positive test,” Franklin said. “We simply can’t take the risk that they spread this disease.”

Dr. Diana Koelliker, county deputy medical officer, echoed that sentiment. “The course of this pandemic is very much in the hands of our community,” she said. “Your behavior will steer its trajectory.”