Henry Mitchell

San Miguel County Emergency Manager Henry Mitchell works in his vehicle adjacent to the COVID-19 testing site erected in the county parking lot in Lawson Hill Tuesday. (Photo by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

By the time you read this, the novel coronavirus testing site erected in the San Miguel County Lawson Hill intercept lot will be dismantled and headed to its next stop. The arrival of a National Guard Civil Support team to help administer 100 coronavirus tests to county residents was a welcome arrival to local health care officials and those being tested.

Jennifer Dinsmore, San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office emergency management coordinator, was on site Tuesday. She explained that the National Guard team was sent here at the behest of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to conduct “surveillance testing,” which will help state and local officials better understand the reach of the pandemic that, in Colorado, has made significant inroads into the state’s mountain towns. Those towns — Vail, Crested Butte, Aspen and others — have reported numerous cases of the novel coronavirus. As of press time Tuesday afternoon, there were no reported cases in the county.

On Tuesday, 100 county residents with various risk factors were selected to be tested at the temporary facility set up on the west end of the county lot between Viking Rentals and Telluride Tire. The area was guarded by Sheriff’s Office deputies and Colorado State Patrol officers, and uniformed members of the National Guard were seen at the lot. Also on hand, Dinsmore said, were six CDPHE officials. A sheriff’s deputy forbade photos.

Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Susan Lilly explained why Telluride was selected as a test site.

“CDPHE is conducting tests all over the state to determine how widespread the disease is,” Lilly said. “They chose Telluride because we are a resort community with thousands of national and international visitors and therefore a community identified at risk of ‘ongoing community transmission.’ Once CDPHE intimated this effort, the state Emergency Operations Center engaged the Colorado National Guard for supportive operational functions. The CDPHE trained personnel conducted all of the testing per their protocols.”

Throughout the day, those with appointments were admitted and ran through a phalanx of checkpoints. One of those patients, who shall remain anonymous and be referred to as Patient A, shared their experience.

Patient A received their doctor’s orders from the Uncompahgre Medical Center in Norwood, where they went with flu symptoms. They were tested for flu there, which came back negative.

“Never in my life have I ever wished I had the flu,” they said. But it earned them a COVID-19 test Tuesday, for which they were grateful.

Patient A said they didn’t get out of the car and was stopped several times for ID as they navigated a maze of checkpoints to get to the final stop where they “got a Q-tip up the nose.”

“Everyone was really nice,” they said. “But it was kind of overwhelming with that many people there.”

Their results should be available by Saturday.

A restaurant worker, Patient A said they’ve been serving people from all over the world in the days leading up to county orders to close food service establishments. They expressed frustration with people not practicing social distancing or staying home if they’re ill.

“I think that everything should be shut down until we get results,” Patient A said.

While the arrival of the National Guard, CDPHE and the installation of a testing facility was welcomed by local public health and government officials, one Lawson Hill business owner objected to the site selection, arguing that it was not as remote as local officials claimed. Bill Gordon, owner of the Society Conoco, called selecting the county lot as a coronavirus testing site was “ill-conceived,” and called the subdivision “one of the most population exposed sites in the county,” as he cited the traffic to his business, as well as other Society Turn businesses.

Gordon said he and other business owners and residents were not apprised of the testing site’s imminent arrival.

“Lawson Hill nor any of the operating businesses were contacted about this testing,” Gordon said. “To me, this a grossly irresponsible lack of communication by the so-called emergency management persons.”

Dinsmore said that the site, chosen by Sheriff Bill Masters and Telluride Fire Protection District Chief John Bennett, had a number of advantages, including ease of access and the presence of rest rooms.

“It was the best fit for what we had to get done,” Dinsmore said. She added that there had been a few emails from concerned Lawson Hill residents.

One resident of the subdivision appreciated the mobilization of the testing site.

“In many, many ways, we are lucky that (Gov. Jared) Polis and the Democrats are in charge of Colorado,” said Jim Bedford, a longtime resident and former county commissioner. “There are a half-dozen red states with no restrictions and almost no testing. If you don't test, you don't know what you don't know until your hospitals are overrun.”

Another Lawson Hill resident expressed gratitude for local officials.

“I am so proud of our local authorities,” Nancy Craft said, “The med center, public health, the sheriff’s office, our county commissioners. They are doing such a great job!”