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This chart illustrates how COVID-19 levels detected in samples taken from the Telluride Wastewater Treatment Plant revealed dramatic spikes following holidays. Though the numbers are trending down, data following the Super Bowl and Presidents Day weekend were not yet available. (Courtesy image)

The San Miguel Board of County Commissioners, convened as the County Board of Public Health and the Environment Wednesday, heard its weekly update from county public health director Grace Franklin, who reported that while COVID-19 positive case counts are declining, it was still too soon to relax Level Orange Extreme public health restrictions, particularly those related to lodging capacity.

The commissioners and county staff heard from several members of the public who implored the board to at least allow the lodging cap — currently at 50 percent — to revert to its previous Level Red limit of 60 percent.

“Lodgers are experiencing some pretty good issues (with the 60 percent cap),” said Alpine Lodging CEO Larry Mallard. “We’d like to see it return to (Level) Red. That will keep a lot of lodgers from having to call and make cancelations. I’m not suggesting we’re out of the woods, I just don’t think this has been thought through.”

Moving from a 60 percent to a 50 percent cap meant that many lodgers had to contact guests to cancel units mere days prior to the Presidents Day holiday weekend. Mallard said lodgers anticipate having to make those same phone calls as March’s spring breakers begin arriving.

Dr. Jeff Kocher, epidemiologist and advisor to county public health officials, supported Mallard’s request.

“Our wastewater treatment plant data is trending in the right direction,” Kocher said.

Fecal samples collected from the Telluride Wastewater Treatment Plant and sent to a lab in Fort Collins are tested for viral shedding. According to the most recent data, Franklin said that while the numbers there are declining, “there’s still a high prevalence of disease. But we’re headed in the right direction.”

Data from post-Super Bowl and Presidents Day weekend was not yet available.

During stakeholder updates, Mountain Village Mayor Laila Benitez said a survey of businesses revealed that Mountain Village business owners there were deeply frustrated with what were perceived as public health orders that changed often. She additionally bemoaned what she said was a lack of communication from the county. Mountain Village officials, she said, are working to support businesses as they navigate the fluctuations of the pandemic.

“They (business owners) don’t understand it,” Benitez said.

Greg Craig said it wasn’t government driving public health policy, but more the disease itself.

“The disease is driving it,” Craig said. “It’s painful to everyone, everywhere. If the disease spikes, we have to react. Are they not understanding it (public health policies), or are they not liking it?”

Commissioner Kris Holstrom acknowledged that the 60 percent lodging cap was an aspect of Level Orange Extreme that “caused the most pain” and asked her colleagues if the matter could be looked into.

At today’s (Thursday) Lodging Oversight Committee meeting, the board and staff agreed to further analyze the metrics public health uses in creating policy decisions, but maintained, for now, that the case rate and the data collated from the wastewater treatment plant supported the current level.

“A post-holiday spike is expected, and the goal is to limit those spikes,” Franklin said.

Testing continues apace throughout the county, Franklin reported, with 800 tests administered, primarily at the testing site at the county intercept lot in Lawson Hill. Next week, a crew from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE), assisted by the Colorado National Guard, will be returning to conduct another pair of free mass testing events. Thursday, Feb. 25, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. CDPHE will set up in Norwood at the county fairgrounds and Friday, Feb. 26, from 2-5 p.m. they will be at the Telluride Regional Airport. No appointments are necessary.

Commissioner Hilary Cooper urged residents to continue getting tested.

“It’s important we keep testing our community,” she said. “Continue to participate.”

The county’s vaccine rollout is on schedule, though this week’s winter weather, which impacted most of the country, impacted the supply chain from Moderna. Franklin said she expects delays in the near future. As of Saturday, 100 second doses and 144 first doses were administered with educators representing 127 of those recipients. So far, 2,048 county residents have been vaccinated. The current state-mandated phase is Phase 1B.2, which includes educators, child care workers, government officials, those 65 and older, frontline health care workers, and others.

Also on the vaccine front, the county announced the advent of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccinations. The new program is aimed at increasing access to vaccines for those eligible throughout the country. According to a news release from the county, retail pharmacies participating in the program will vary by state and territory. In Colorado, participating retail pharmacies include The Kroger Company, which owns City Market, and Walmart Inc, which owns Sam’s Club. Eligible individuals interested in getting vaccinated at their local retail pharmacy should contact the pharmacy directly for appointment availability.

“This is an incredible opportunity to increase health equity and access to vaccines throughout the county,” Franklin said in the release. “Additional avenues for vaccine distribution can only help in our efforts to vaccinate our eligible population because supply from the state to our existing distribution centers is limited.”

Phase 1B.3 is expected to begin in March, according to Governor Jared Polis.

San Miguel County Public Health, Telluride Regional Medical Center and Uncompahgre Medical Center are the vaccine distribution centers within the county. Based on supply, eligible residents can reach out to their primary care physician, employer or visit the county’s COVID-19 vaccine tab in order to preregister.

To schedule an appointment with an approved City Market retail pharmacy, visit citymarket.com/rx/guest/vaccination-appointments. For Walmart and Sam's Club, visit walmart.com/COVIDvaccine or samsclub.com/covid, respectively.

Though Colorado does not ask for identification or residency requirements, Cooper said the state asks residents to abide by “an honor system.”

“We’re hoping people will wait their turn,” Cooper said. “It’s for the common good.”

Public health announced 15 new positive cases Tuesday. Of these cases, 12 are residents. All actively contagious cases are currently in isolation. As of press time Wednesday afternoon, there have been 800 total COVID cases among residents to date, including 22 active cases.

While there has been a recent decline in cases, the next two weeks are critical in whether or not that decline is sustained, as county officials hope to curb the spread from Super Bowl gatherings and the Presidents Day holiday. “Maintaining current policy levels will help San Miguel County continue the downward trend and sustainably reopen in the coming weeks,” according to the release. For more information on testing, vaccines and current county metrics, go to sanmiguelcountyco.gov.