Dr. Sharon Grundy

Dr. Sharon Grundy, San Miguel County medical officer, talks about the plan to provide free COVID-19 testing to all county residents, which was announced Wednesday during an emergency meeting. (Photo by Justin Criado/Telluride Daily Planet)

San Miguel County officials announced Wednesday an unprecedented plan to provide free COVID-19 tests for all county residents, thanks to the generosity of a local couple with extensive science backgrounds that owns United Biomedical Inc., which was founded by Chang Yi Want in 1985 and headquartered in Hauppauge, New York. Specifically, the company’s subsidiary c19 will work with the Telluride Regional Medical Center in administering the tests.

A new blood test that detects antibodies associated with fighting the novel coronavirus was federally approved Monday. The locals reached out to county officials Tuesday night about providing free testing.

While logistics of when and where tests will take place were still being ironed out as of press time Wednesday 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.

Individuals would be tested, required to 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. Testing and isolation are the two most effective methods in battling the virus, Dr. Christine Mahoney of the med center explained.

While there were no documented positive cases in San Miguel County as of press time Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Diana Koelliker, also of the med center, said it’s here. There have also been an increase of respiratory illnesses in young children, she added.

“ I can tell you with 100 percent assurance that we have seen patients in our medical center who have the disease consistent with coronavirus. I have seen patients that have CAT scan findings that have only been seen in response to this virus,” she said. “ …. The ongoing research and information lets me know that it is here. Recently, in the past several days, we have had a number of very ill individuals that have required a higher level of care; that have been required to be put on a ventilator. These are patients that I’m pretty sure have coronavirus, but I have no tests back yet.

“We also just recently have seen an uptick in significant respiratory illness in some children in our community; in the past 48 hours. I am here to let you know, not in an alarmist way, that this is our reality. Our world has changed as we know it based on this new virus. It is not going to get better in the next three weeks. It’s going to be an ongoing situation that we’re going to have to deal with.”

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.

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. County medical officer Dr. Sharon Grundy shared a list of five goals regarding the situation which also includes decreasing the amount of population that can become severely ill, protect health care personnel and the essential service workforce, steady rollout of testing throughout the county, and providing a model for other communities in regards to testing.

“We know that if one person contracts this virus with no containment measures that they are likely to transmit it to at least two additional people,” Koelliker said. “ … This is our new reality and we’re going to have to deal with it, and it can be dealt with, but it is going to take some significant steps.”

The meeting and announcements were emotional for everyone involved, as Koelliker, Grundy and Franklin choked up at different times when talking about the severity of the current situation and the necessary measures that must be taken in order to protect the safety of the general public. Throughout the situation officials stressed the importance of working together and cooperation.

“We need to take this seriously. We need to act quickly. We need to be transparent about it. We need to be calm about it. I come from a place of integrity, honesty, and I have the courage to do the right thing,” Grundy said at the beginning, before later adding “ … We need to seize the day. The rates are doubling. We’re going to be a leader in the entire country.”

The county created a hotline for COVID-19 questions, as they asked people not to call the med center due to the overwhelming strain of the situation. The number is 970-728-3844. Volunteers will also be needed in different capacities as testing begins. If interested, email volunteer@tchnetwork.org. For the most up-to-date information, visit sanmiguelcountyco.gov/coronavirus.