volunteers

Volunteers pose for a picture during the first round of community-wide testing last month. (Photo courtesy of San Miguel County)

Seemingly every aspect of life has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools are closed, as students, parents and educators adjust to learning from afar. Most businesses are shut to the public. Restaurants are permitted to offer takeout services that adhere to specific public health guidelines only. Gov. Jared Polis even ordered the closure of all state ski areas, which abruptly ended the 2019-20 season. Within a month, life changed dramatically. Plans to offer free, voluntary testing to all San Miguel County residents were put into action in no time, as approximately 6,000 people were tested during the first round of the antibody-detecting blood draws over the past several weeks, thanks to a partnership between the county and United Biomedical Inc. Hundreds of people were involved in the rollout.  

Lexi Tuddenham, who has been an EMT for 10 years and volunteered to assist with the first round of testing, said she feels fortunate to live in a community that has been so proactive.

“I feel incredibly privileged to be healthy, not immunocompromised, and able to serve my community in this very direct way. I read a couple of reports per day from places like NYC or Italy, and they are a reality check that takes my breath away and gives me a moment of deep fear for what's ahead for us and for so many others,” she said. “But we aren't there yet, and there is a lot we can do to prevent getting there, so I keep doing those things that I am able to do right now: physically distancing, hand washing, wearing a mask in public, responsibly following public health guidelines and being useful where I can.”

The first round of testing went smoothly by all accounts, though the second round has been delayed indefinitely, officials announced Tuesday, due to delays in processing the initial tests. Tuddenham, who is also working full time in her role as Sheep Mountain Alliance’s executive director, praised the efforts of everyone involved with the testing process, which is the first such initiative in the nation. Participants have been grateful for the opportunity, she added. 

“I've been lucky to connect with so many people individually, both friends and strangers, when they come in to get tested, and for the most part people have been very impressed and pleased with the system we have developed,” she said. “Obviously, there is frustration with the delays in results and no one really likes getting their blood drawn, however, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

While mass testing will help officials manage the situation locally, there is the possibility that the virus will resurface after the initial surge since there is no vaccine available currently. Officials announced the tenth positive case — a 41-year-old female who lives in the county — Tuesday, though 98 percent of the tests that have been processed from the first round came back negative.

“Even after the second round of testing, we will still likely be far from the top of our local curve. And even after that there will be resurgences,” Tuddenham said. “Everyone needs to stick to the protocols we have been given to protect ourselves and each other for as long as we need to.”

County public health director Grace Franklin continues to stress the importance of the county public health orders, including wearing a mask in public, limiting travel to and from the county, and physical distancing.

“At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to remain focused and committed to our behavior, which is still the best tool we have,” she said in a news release.

Working in the thick of it can be a lot, but Tuddenham said she’s been taking time to decompress.

“Being outside (safely distanced, of course), skate skiing, cooking, playing with my dog, and feeling grateful for my family and friends, near and far,” she said. “Whiskey and yoga, applied judiciously and in the right proportions, helps, too.”