Colorado health officials urge Garfield County to adopt tighter restrictions to curb Covid spread

Garfield County is being asked by state public health officials to revert to a higher-risk level of restrictions based on a rapidly increasing trend locally in coronavirus disease spread.

However, they’re being met with resistance from county commissioners to move to that next degree of protections under the state’s Covid-19 dial, which would further limit public gatherings and the degree to which businesses can be open.

Namely, if Garfield County were to move to the “High Risk-Level Orange” restrictions, as requested, most businesses would be limited to 25% capacity, instead of 50% as is currently the case — as would churches and events.

The county would also no longer be eligible for new variances, such as those currently granted to the local hot springs attractions and the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. However, it’s unclear how those existing variances would be handled if the county moves to tighter restrictions.

Those will likely be matters for discussion during a special Zoom meeting between the county commissioners and state and local public health officials slated for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17.

“You’re going to have a stubborn Board of County Commissioners on this issue,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky informed Mara Brosy-Wiwchar, chief of staff under Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan.

“We have to find a way to balance this, but we can’t shut down our economy,” Jankovsky said, pointing to information from one local hospital official who spoke Monday saying that hospital capacity, so far, remains under control.

Brosy-Wiwchar checked in during the commissioners’ Monday update from county public health officials to make the request that the county “start the conversation” about putting stricter controls in place.

She said Garfield County Public Health has been responsive in its mitigation efforts since late October when the county moved from the “Cautious-Level Blue” on the state’s Covid-19 dial to “Concern-Level Yellow” degree of restrictions.

However, the rate of disease transmission in Garfield County continues to go up — including a new record high of 27.3 cases per day, on average, for the 14-day period ending on Monday, and a test positivity rate now of 12%.

Some risk measures, including a two-week incidence rate of 623.3 cases per 100,000 people, as of the latest statistics, put Garfield County in the “Stay at Home-Level Red” degree of risk, she said.

“Garfield County has done a great job of leading in this effort, but unfortunately the disease has really just taken control,” Brosy-Wiwchar said. “You need to start talking about more community-wide measures … to really try to get ahead of this spread.”

Commissioner John Martin struck a more conciliatory tone to Jankovsky’s resistance, but expressed similar concerns about further business restrictions.

“We will look at that again,” Martin said of the Brosy-Wiwchar’s request. “If it’s best for the safety of everyone, we will consider that.”

The commissioners also heard Monday from Dr. David Brooks, chief medical officer at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.

He said the local hospital remains “ready and prepared, and is fully operational,” even as hospitalizations and bed capacity around the state is reaching a critical level of concern.

“We have optimized our care delivery for Covid patients and our protocols have improved,” Brooks said. “As a result, we are seeing less admissions to the hospital.”

As of Monday, Valley View had “less than 10” patients admitted for Covid-19, Brooks said, adding he cannot be specific for patient confidentiality reasons. That’s a manageable number, he said, but it’s not just bed capacity, it’s also an issue of staffing, Brooks added.

There are some factors in play with the latest surge in cases, both locally and across the country, that are worrisome, he said.

For one, the huge surge in cases nationwide means that resources to combat Covid-19 are being depleted. Statewide, the strain on some of the bigger hospitals — including in nearby Grand Junction — means that patients who are in need of more critical care may not be able to transfer out of the smaller local hospitals, Brooks said.

“We do want to be careful to not let there be preventable harm, to where our hospital capacity is limited,” he said. “We need to act together now to mitigate this disease.”

Garfield County Public Health (GCPH) Director Yvonne Long said the most-recent two-week case total was skewed by a backlog of test results that were just reported from the state lab.

Still, that’s way more cases than her team of public health nurses can reasonably investigate and conduct contact tracing on, she said.

In many cases, test results aren’t even coming back until after people are beyond their isolation period, so it’s not effective to even do contact tracing in some instances, Long said.

According to a late Monday press release from GCPH, there were 155 open Covid-19 cases in the county.

“These are cases that have not received a complete contact investigation,” according to the release. “The daily number of cases has now exceeded the highest previous levels seen in July. You are more at risk of contracting the virus now than at any other point in the pandemic.”

Case investigators are now beyond their capacity, with some days topping 50 new reported cases, the release goes on to explain.

“We are now prioritizing case investigations based on age and occupation and potential outbreaks, if known, (plus) schools and childcare. Once we work through the priority groups, we then contact the remaining cases,” GCPH explained in the release.

Long said Garfield County currently has a rotation of 13 case investigators, but only three or four are dedicated to tracing on any day. Tracers now work seven days per week trying to call everyone who tests positive for Covid-19. 

“We are at our max, and can no longer take the time to investigate every case,” Long said during the Monday meeting. “We’re basically just telling people what they can do to keep from spreading it out into a second or third ring of people.”

Leslie Robinson of Rifle, who just recently lost her bid for a Garfield County commissioner seat against incumbent Mike Samson, said the county should look west to Mesa County and the orange-level restrictions and testing measures it has in place.

“It’s time we start facing the facts that Covid is getting away from us here in Garfield County, and we need to do something,” Robinson said.

That “something” should not involve tighter economic restrictions, Jankovsky countered.

“Shutting down the economy doesn’t take into consideration the effect that has on small businesses, and the stress and mental health concerns that goes with that,” he said.

Jankovsky said he doesn’t see how reducing restaurant capacity, for instance, will make a difference in disease spread. Rather, it comes down to individual decision-making and a commitment to wear masks in public, keep a safe distance from others, and follow all of the other public health guidelines, he said.

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