‘It’s not a crisis yet’: Routt County Board of Health evaluates recent rise in COVID-19 cases
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Wednesday, the Routt County Board of Health addressed a recent rise in COVID-19 cases among local residents.
A female, symptomatic teenager, whose results came in Wednesday morning, is the latest positive COVID-19 case in the county, according to the Routt County Public Health Department. Since the start of June, six new positive cases have been identified. That brings the total number of cases in Routt County to 68, with five new cases in the last five days.
“It’s not a crisis yet,” Commissioner Beth Melton said of the rise, but she added it does elevate her level of concern.
The county’s ability to manage the spread of the virus is a major factor in being able to ease restrictions and advance to the state’s “Protect Our Neighbors” phase. That next step of the recovery process could begin by the end of this month but only in counties that show success in suppressing COVID-19.
A rise in cases was a risk the commissioners have acknowledged as the state relaxes restrictions amid the pandemic. Travel and group gatherings are among the riskiest activities for disease transmission, according to Kari Ladrow, Routt County’s director of public health.
While the state has relaxed gathering sizes at formal events, in which organizers have a mitigation protocol in place, a 10-person gathering limit remains in effect otherwise. As Ladrow explained, a backyard BBQ with, say, 30 people poses a greater risk of exposure to the virus and makes it exponentially more difficult for public health officials to conduct contact tracing should anyone get sick. Other examples of informal gatherings that must limit attendees to 10 include camping trips, dinner parties and birthday celebrations.
Traveling, particularly out of state or to areas that have seen a recent spike in cases, is another highly risky behavior, according to Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County’s public health medical officer.
Public health officials cited both travel and group gatherings as factors in the county’s most recent cases. One recent victim of the virus traveled out of state with a group of residents and attended an unspecified social gathering, Ladrow explained. Prior to the person testing positive, a social gathering of 21 people took place at the person’s household in Routt County. Health officials established a pop-up station to test all of those people who potentially could have gotten the virus.
“You can see how there is the potential for this virus to spread exponentially, and quickly, given the number of contacts involved in just one case,” Ladrow explained.
Contact tracing also has its limitations, Dr. Harrington acknowledged.
Health officials cannot force people to get tested for the virus, and some are reluctant to give accurate, detailed information during interviews for contact tracing.
“We’ve had instances where an individual won’t tell us stuff or is untruthful,” Harrington said.
Harrington applauded the work of local businesses, from fitness centers to restaurants, that have followed and enforced health guidelines. He has seen no evidence of businesses in the county contributing to spread of the virus.
Ladrow described immigrant families as a vulnerable population due to a lack of non-English information. To address the lack of such resources, the county’s public health department has been working with Integrated Community to improve communication with non-English speakers and to provide more education on the virus and local resources.
“It is going to be an ongoing challenge for us to convince people they can and should be tested,” Ladrow acknowledged.
The county is receiving additional funding, about $436,000, from the federal government to improve local public health capacity, according to Melton.
As she explained, a major issue with the COVID-19 pandemic has been its scale. Other recent disease outbreaks in Colorado, such as a scourge of hepatitis A that began in 2018, reached a few hundred cases. As of Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 cases in the state was almost 30,900.
Much of the federal funding will go toward increasing the number of staff at the county’s public health department, which Melton said is instrumental to controlling the spread of the virus
“It’s important to highlight how critical these positions are and how under-resourced we are (right now) to be able to handle the magnitude of a global pandemic,” she said. “We are not the only ones. It’s no fault of our own. It just is what it is.”
The Routt County Board of Health emphasized that the coming months will be critical, both for expanding public health capacity and combatting the pandemic. Commissioners stressed the importance of complying with health guidelines, such as wearing face masks at local businesses, maintaining social distance and washing hands often.
“It’s not a time to just get tired of doing all the important things we’ve been doing,” Melton said. “Clearly, COVID is still in our community and can and will be spread.”
Younger people in particular need to be better at following state and local health guidelines, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In the last 25 days, people age 30 and younger have accounted for about 40% of the state’s new COVID-19 cases.
Another reason for the rise among younger people could be that they are less likely to show symptoms of the virus, the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, said at a news conference last week.
Community testing is available regardless of whether people have symptoms. To make an appointment, call 970-870-5577.
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