Though it was a beautiful, warm spring day, local mountain guide Fischer Hazen wasn’t teaching an eager group of spring break clients how to tie in for their first ice climbing experience or taking a carefree ski lap of his own on the mountain. Instead, although feeling healthy, he was waiting in line outside the Telluride Regional Medical Center to be tested for COVID-19. Since Hazen’s father is a first responder, he was part of the first wave of free COVID-19 tests offered by the county late last week to all community members who faced higher risk of exposure to the virus through their profession or family or household members in such professions.
“It was a relatively simple process,” Hazen said. “We showed up to the med center and they had a table outside where we filled out questionnaires with our basic info and any symptoms,” noting that participants were told to bring their own pens and safe distances were marked on the sidewalk by traffic cones. Those with any symptoms were directed to another line, where personnel wearing personal protective equipment assisted them.
“From there it was pretty easy, we just waited until one of the IV stations opened up, and they took a quick blood draw. It was a pretty painless process,” Hazen explained.
As San Miguel County’s public health officials prepare to make the new blood test available to the approximately 8,000 county residents in an effort to gain an accurate and comprehensive picture of the spread of COVID-19 infections in the area, many residents have had questions about what exactly the blood test entails, the company that has developed it, and how the results will be used or help officials flatten the curve.
The developer of the COVID-19 blood test, United Biomedical Inc. (UBI), is a multi-national biopharmaceutical company that has specialized in developing diagnostic kits and vaccines for infectious disease for decades. The company is covering all costs associated with testing. Two members of UBI’s leadership, married Telluride couple Mei Mei Hu and Lou Reese, along with the company’s chairperson Chang Yi Wang, recently formed a COVID-19 focused subsidiary, c19. The new company began developing a blood test for the virus, which screens specifically for antibodies that act as the virus’s unique fingerprint in the bloodstream. Unlike the swab test that’s being used throughout the country, which detects only active infection, the c19 blood test has the ability to detect whether a person has already had the virus, which provides a more comprehensive understanding of how much the virus has already impacted a community, as well as how much of the community is immune to infection.
A focus group of Telluride School District teachers will be tested today (Wednesday), as officials are still putting together a timeline for countywide testing. The Telluride Intermediate School gymnasium will be the testing site for the East End of the county, while a testing location for the West End was still being discussed as of press time Tuesday afternoon.
“We are grateful to the school for allowing us to take over their space to use for the county's East End testing site,” county public information officer Susan Lilly said. “We wanted a small group of people, so we started with teachers in the district, and we’re working with Superintendent Mike Gass on logistics.”
Opening testing to the greater community depends on how Wednesday goes, Lilly said, as officials will refine their operation, if necessary.
“We want to have our process, supplies and everything as dialed in as possible before we have thousands of people participate,” Lilly said.
Testing is for county residents only, officials explained, and not everyone needs to be tested, mainly children who are 8 years old or younger, and those who are homebound.
“It can be a traumatizing experience for young children to get their blood drawn, and in this case it’s not necessary,” Dr. Diana Koelliker, county deputy medical officer said in a news release. “Children share their common exposures with their parents, so their immunity should mirror their parents’ immunity.”
Grace Franklin, county public health director, added, “We do not need high-risk people who are already sheltering in place to come out or have people come into their home to be tested.”
County residents who choose to get tested will need to show some proof of residency like a utility bill or lease. However, officials are more focused on discouraging people from out of town from coming to the testing sites.
“Law enforcement will be present and do what is necessary to preserve the integrity of the county and of the site,” Lilly said.
She explained arrangements, including possibly door-to-door testing, will be made for those who have disabilities.
“The preference is not to do door-to-door testing primarily because of safety, but also because of efficiency with manpower,” she said.
Hu and Reese, who live part of the year in Telluride, recognized that San Miguel County would be an ideal location to perform large-scale testing for the virus, due to the area’s geographic isolation, as well as its status as a resort community with many domestic and international visitors.
“By mass testing, you are able to accurately identify what the true outbreak prevalence is in a community, and more specifically, who has been infected and already recovered, who has never been exposed, and who is currently infected,” Hu said. “The last group are clearly identified and can be isolated to prevent further spread to the community, which will save lives.”
“UBI will have no access to any personal identification information such as name,” Hu said, “We will not perform any tests on your sample, except COVID-19 testing. The only test results UBI will know are the anonymized results against COVID-19.”
She added that the company will not retain any rights to the use of or sell any the information for future use. The blood tests will provide a strict one-time source of anonymized data regarding the current state of the COVID-19 virus within the county.
Hu noted that while “the more data the better, the more complete the picture of the outbreak prevalence,” she stressed that county residents should not feel pressured as “the test is completely voluntary.” Ideally, the countywide tests will be repeated after the initial tests in 14 days to track the spread of the virus. The c19 blood test reports a very high accuracy rate, with results available in two business days, Hu explained.
On Friday, local officials announced that a 54-year-old resident of the county was the county’s first positive case. According to a news release, the married father returned home from a domestic trip and reported symptoms. He and his family, some of whom have experienced symptoms also, have been placed in isolation for 14 days. Officials said he and his family are recovering well.
The county has administered 47 nasal swab tests with one positive result, 20 negative and 26 still pending. Results of the 100 COVID-19 tests performed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment March 17 are expected from the state sometime within the week.
Top U.S. public health experts, as well as officials in other countries battling the pandemic, have also stressed the critical importance of removing barriers to mass testing such as access and cost, and have cited mass-testing successes in countries such as South Korea in drastically reducing infection rates. By implementing widespread testing and receiving timely results, officials and residents will be able to slow the spread by identifying, treating and isolating virus-positive patients early on, minimizing the window of time that they are unwittingly spreading the virus to others, according to health experts.
For more information and to sign up for COVID-19 email alerts, visit sanmiguelcountyco.gov/590/coronavirus.