State asks Garfield County how it plans to mitigate surge in new coronavirus cases

Downvalley traffic backs up from 8th Street to south Glenwood during the evening rush hour. An ever-growing number of new cases are showing up in the commuter workforce that lives in Garfield County and works in the neighboring resort counties.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Garfield County Public Health must advise the state how it plans to get a handle on the recent surge in new coronavirus cases locally, or risk a rollback of certain variances regarding business operations if the numbers keep rising.

County commissioners were informed late last week by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan that the county must file a mitigation plan outlining ways in which it will try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Three successive 14-day periods where the county exceeded 60 new symptomatic onset cases puts it in violation of a May 23 state variance that allowed Garfield County restaurants, gyms and fitness facilities and churches to operate at greater capacity than broader state rules allowed at the time.

While many of the statewide rules now mirror the local variance, the growing number of new COVID cases in Garfield County — 69, 122 and 78 in the last three rolling 14-day periods — is a concern, Ryan advised.

It’s not just Garfield County that’s being asked to address the local situation, Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long informed county commissioners Monday morning.

Eagle and Pitkin counties have also been asked to submit a mitigation plan, and are working with Garfield County to share some strategies, she said.

That’s due in large part to the fact that an ever-growing number of new cases are showing up in the commuter workforce that lives in Garfield County and works in the neighboring resort counties, Long said.

“We will have something in writing to them by midnight tonight (Monday),” Long said of the deadline given by the state to submit its mitigation plan. But that plan remains a work in progress jointly with the other two counties, she said.

Ryan advised in her letter to the county, “After receipt of the plan, the county will have two weeks to reverse the trend of increasing disease. We will re-evaluate your case count and positivity (rate) at that time, and may modify or remove the county’s variance …”

Latest Garfield County COVID-19 Statistics & Trends

Cumulative cases as of Tuesday morning (all testing sources) — 536

New cases reported since 7/14 —95

Rolling two-week onset of new cases: July 7-20 — 69; June 23-July 6 — 122; June 9-22 — 78

Test positivity rate — 5.3%

Deaths — 4

Source: Garfield County Public Health

Recently, public health officials in the tri-county region have stepped up education campaigns within the area’s Latino community and with employers about taking proper precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Many of the new cases are showing up among Latino workers who live in Garfield County.

“A large majority of these cases are coming from workplaces up valley, and people are bringing it home,” Mason Hohstadt, a public health specialist with the county, said during the regular update to commissioners. “We are trying to communicate more effectively in Spanish and English, and going in some different directions to get that information out to our Latino community.”

Last week, Garfield County Public Health issued an advisory against carpooling to and from job sites, which is one way it believes the disease is being transmitted.

“Social distancing (should) be done in vehicles as well as in person, by driving separately,” according to the advisory that was disseminated by press release and other means.

One thing working in Garfield County’s favor is its relatively low positivity rate among those being tested for COVID-19, Hohstadt said. While the county is in the “red” category for a high rate of viral spread based on its running 14-day total of new cases, its positivity rate of 5.3% is on the low end of the medium, or yellow category, he said.

For their part, county commissioners said they are not going to go against Gov. Jared Polis’s statewide executive order issued last week requiring the wearing of face masks/coverings in public places of business and where proper social distancing cannot be maintained.

Weld County commissioners have said they will not enforce the order, and some local residents suggested Monday that Garfield County should do the same, saying the order is unconstitutional.

“I don’t like the idea of telling people to wear a mask, but that’s not a battle I want to fight,” Commissioner Mike Samson said. “I have as much information saying it’s vitally important to wear a mask, as not.”

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky agreed, and said he’s not willing to risk a shutdown of Garfield County businesses by challenging the mask order.

“We have a war going on, and it’s against COVID-19,” Jankovsky said. “(Wearing masks) is a small thing to do to try to control this. I’m not going backwards on our economy and jobs.”

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