Free COVID testing

The early morning line to the free COVID-19 testing site at the Lawson Hill park and ride stretch nearly to the roundabout. By 4 p.m., 971 people had been tested, according to San Miguel County emergency manager, Henry Mitchell. The tests were conducted by the Colorado National Guard. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

We had a game plan. Arise early, drive to the Lawson Hill park and ride, join what we hoped would be a short-ish line, and get a free COVID-19 test. We’d be on our way to work in no time, satisfied we’d have our test results in a matter of days. What we found, at 7:15 a.m., was a line of vehicles that stretched down Society Drive, past the Conoco and all the way to the roundabout. We circled counter-clockwise to our place at the end of the line. Before long, it was no longer the end of the line as countless vehicles joined us.

This is by no means a complaint. We were in a warm car, it was a pretty morning, and witnessing all of the people who, like us, wanted to discover whether the coronavirus had found them, made me proud of my community.

San Miguel County, like much of the rest of the world, has experienced an alarming surge in cases over the last couple of weeks. Wednesday alone, 12 new cases were confirmed — as of press time, there are now 132 reported cases with 20 in active status.

Nine of the twelve positives are residents and symptomatic, according to the Wednesday news release from the county. These positives include a 72-year-old female, 60-year-old female, 38-year-old male, 36-year-old female, 36-year-old female, 35-year-old male, 33-year-old male, 16-year-old female, and a 14-year-old female. Two nonresidents include a 51-year-old male and a 19-year-old male, both of whom are symptomatic. One known positive has been unreachable by Public Health and, as such, is not included in the resident and active case totals at this time. All eleven positives that could be reached are currently in isolation. There have been 132 total COVID cases among residents to date with 20 active cases.

San Miguel County is far from alone in seeing a dramatic rise in cases. Ouray County officials have also been grappling with a coronavirus tide, one that saw them bring in the National Guard Tuesday, for a mass testing operation there. Because they were in the area, county emergency manager Henry Mitchell thought it would be wise to bring them to San Miguel County, to a location they’d set up previously, in April.

Earlier this week, public health director, Grace Franklin, moved the county to Safer at Home Level Orange in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. This level reduces indoor capacity to 25 percent or 50 people, whichever is fewer, while also limiting private gatherings to no more than 10 people from no more than two households.

Though I have lived a decidedly cloistered life since March, taking the test was a no-brainer. My life’s orbit is tightly centered on my home, and my few social contacts have taken place nearly exclusively outdoors. But something as insidious as Covid is not something I will assume cannot find me. My trips to grocery store alone raise my risk factor another notch, despite keeping those excursions to about two or three times a month since August. 

What’s a contact budget? Public health officials recommend that contact with other be no more than 10 people outside one’s household. Though my contact budget is diminutive, I took the test so as not to wonder if I’m an asymptomatic carrier. Peace of mind, if you will.

Kevin Holbrooke is deeply involved with Lizard Head Hockey, the youth and adult hockey club that draws hundreds of participants to the ice. Holbrooke took the test for a simple reason.

“It’s about the kids,” he said. “I’m the common denominator for a few groups of kids for whom I coach hockey. We, as the Lizard Head Hockey board, thought it would be best to start from the top down and get board members, directors and coaches in for the free test.”

For Michael Mowery, not only was he was inspired to get tested as a way to aid public health officials, but to support testing despite what he views as the skeptical federal response to the pandemic.

“Unlike our outgoing president, testing is critical to stop spreading from asymptomatic carriers and providing data for resourcing to our amazing health and city and county leaders,” Mowery said. “I know it is silly, but I was getting emotional waiting in line knowing what a great community I live in.”

And Tara Kelley and her family shared my concern about possibly being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.

“Scott, PJ and myself all did the testing today,” Kelley said. “I felt it was very important for a community to do this testing so we could get as many results back in so we know how we stand with positive and negative test. Since you can have COVID with no symptoms and spread it without knowing this is the only responsible choice. If was an amazing process and so thankful for the Medical Center and National Guard to make this possible.”

Unlike the April tests, which were for those recommended to do so by medical providers, Thursday’s round was for anyone and everyone, regardless of whether one displayed symptoms. The Colorado National Guard’s medical unit is by now, a well-oiled machine. Oral swab kits — nope, no Voyager nasal probes — were placed under windshield wipers after check-in. The final stop was a visit with a friendly technician who instructed us to cough through face masks into our elbows. We were handed a long-handled cotton swab with which to collect saliva from our mouths. Effortlessly, painlessly, we were on our way. 

The sole glitch, according to county emergency manager, Henry Mitchell, was that the link to pre-register was provided on short notice. My email text providing the link came at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, which I thought was timely.

“It was a little backed up at first because of that,” Mitchell said.

Officials addressed the issue by having Telluride Marshal’s Department Code Enforcement personnel direct traffic. Others polled motorists to ensure they were preregistered before entering the intercept lot.

Mitchell said his goal was to have a test a minute conducted, but reported that the rate of 100 test per hour was “pretty good.”

The hundreds of swabs, each labeled and nestled in a solution in individual screwtop containers, will be analyzed at Curative, Inc. labs. Results will be returned via email within 3-5 days.

By 4 p.m. Thursday, Mitchell reported 971 tests had been administered. The testing event was scheduled to close at 5 p.m. The turnout, Mitchell said, was impressive.

“It’s incredibly gratifying,” he said. “We were not expecting such a large turnout. Everyone is doing their part.”

The county issues public health updates twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays. For more information visit sanmiguelcountyco.gov.

Editor's note: Mitchell called after press time reporting that 1,101 citizens were tested by day's end.