San Miguel County Commissioner Lance Waring reported at Wednesday’s commissioners meeting that the lodging community backs stricter measures in an effort to wrest control of the COVID-19 pandemic as county numbers rise. (Screenshot by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

Public health officials continue to stress personal responsibility when it comes to wrestling into control the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the county, but some in the community would like to see tighter restrictions enacted sooner rather than later. At Wednesday’s San Miguel Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) public health update portion of its regular meeting, different approaches to pandemic management were discussed.

Public health director Grace Franklin presented the commissioners with current data, numbers she said were “pretty concerning.” In the region’s counties that comprise the West Central Health Partnership — San Miguel, Hinsdale, Delta, Gunnison, Mineral, Ouray and Montrose counties — the infection rate is 1 per 398 people, or 3.4 percent of the population. San Miguel’s current case count is 165 with 23 active, as of press time Wednesday afternoon.

The recent community-wide testing event conducted by the National Guard last week revealed 18 positives of the 1,102 oral swabs administered. Eleven of those were county residents and seven were non-residents.

Though the county positivity rate is 4.2 percent (the percentage of positive cases among those who are tested) and the incidence rate is 868 per 100,000 population — numbers Franklin described as “pretty substantial”  — officials will stay in Level Orange for now. Those are two metrics officials consider valuable as they track the course of the pandemic locally. County health officer Dr. Sharon Grundy said officials will continue to track those metrics over the next two weeks and reassess before deciding whether to raise the county’s status to Level Red, or higher, to Purple, depending on outcomes. Grundy stressed personal responsibility.

“Public health can only do so much,” Grundy said. “We can’t come to your house to make sure there aren’t too many people there, we can’t stop you from traveling, we can’t follow grandma around.”

Franklin said that contact tracing interviews have revealed that spread in the community is primarily happening as a result of social gatherings and travel.

“Take it seriously,” Franklin said. “We should not be traveling for Thanksgiving this year. Take everything we know and love and flip it on its head and don’t do it. I have faith in this community.”

And she added that, “if trends continue in two weeks, we’re going into the red, no matter what.”

BOCC chair Hilary Cooper suggested stricter measures enacted now would hammer home the seriousness of the situation to county residents, arguing that the personal responsibility approach wasn’t a strong enough message.

“Data shows very clearly that if orders are put in place (such as prohibiting travel and any indoor activity), we can affect change,” Cooper said, expressing frustration with the “social experiment” of personal responsibility. “I’m not seeing a lot of change in behavior.”

Cooper, who works closely with state policy-makers and public health officials in her role as BOCC chair, said that the state has empowered local officials to “take action.”

“People need a clear message and they’re looking to us for leadership,” Cooper said. “People are looking for rules … boundaries.”

It was a message Cooper returned to throughout the public health update, with public health officials instead preferring for now to leave it to citizens to do the right thing while the current status remains at orange-high risk.

“People have to take personal responsibility,” Grundy said. “It’s not just their own health risk, it’s the economy.”

Commissioner Lance Waring, who heads the county lodging committee, said that group was willing to bear down on restrictions now, in hopes of salvaging the winter season further down the road.

“They’re asking for measures sooner than later,” Waring reported. “They’ll stop taking reservations now. They’re willing to do their part.”

Statewide, too, the infection rate is spiraling upward and deaths from the highly contagious virus are increasing. Of concern to officials at Wednesday’s meeting and throughout Colorado, is that the strain on hospitals is becoming evident. Noting the county’s reliance on regional facilities, Grundy said that should hospital capacity be compromised statewide, that would be a metric that would force an increase to the Purple level. The concern is not only for COVID-19 patient treatment, but also for everyday illnesses and injuries people incur with or without a pandemic. Skiing, it was noted, is a high-risk sport, and an industry upon which the local economy largely hinges.

“We are dependent on regional health care facilities,” she said. “We cannot invite 16,000 people here if someone breaks their arm and we can’t take care of them. We shouldn’t invite people to come here and do a high-risk activity.”

As the pandemic flares in neighboring states such as Utah and New Mexico, Colorado hospitals could see a demand for caring for non-resident patients as those states’ hospitals exceed maximum capacities. Hospitals in Grand Junction and Montrose have few beds available as of press time.

“It’s not just a county thing,” said Commissioner Kris Holstrom. “We have to keep an eye on the larger picture.”

Cooper again reiterated her position on stronger messaging.

“By taking action now, we will be taking steps to mitigate local behavior,” she said. “I think it will send a message for people to change their travel plans.”

There were some nuggets of good news. Franklin reported that, thanks to funding provided by the state, testing is now more widely available and free.

“Public health is now in the Covid testing game,” she said. “We’re able to provide free, community testing.”

On Friday, the county conducted community testing in Norwood, and another event took place in Telluride yesterday.

Another dose of good news came in the form of notification from the state that San Miguel County received 100 percent of the money requested through CARES Act funding. Of the more than $4.7 million granted, the county, in partnership with Region 10, will set up a grant fund of $3.3 million specifically for businesses that have already incurred Covid-related losses between March and September. Telluride will have $604,000 at its disposal and Mountain Village $791,000.

Noting that the county was awarded more than any other county in Colorado, county manager Mike Bordogna explained that the county’s grant fund will award assistance to qualifying businesses in amounts “up to $100,000.”

“We pushed really hard to help our businesses,” Bordogna said.

The county has also announced industry-specific community forums that will take place throughout the day today (Thursday). The schedule is as follows: offices, noon-12:50 p.m.; retail, 1-1:50 p.m.; gyms, 2-2:50 p.m.; restaurants, bars and coffee shops, 3-3:50 p.m.; lodging, 4-4:50 p.m.; houses of worship, 5-5:50 p.m.

For more information on the industry forums, the county’s Covid dashboard and to stay apprised of funding for businesses once the grant process is put in place, go to sanmiguelcountyco.gov.