After initially struggling to get testing supplies, health authorities are considering how to expand coronavirus testing so Southwest Colorado can begin to reopen safely.
In a state that is 44th in the U.S. in testing per capita, the San Juan Basin is doing comparatively well. According to data released by the Colorado Department of Labor and Statistics, La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta and San Juan counties all place in the lower half of Colorado counties in coronavirus case rates, with a total of only four coronavirus deaths among them as of Friday.
“We’ve been very pleased that we are able to test as many as we need,” said Jennifer Rupp, an infectious-disease specialist at Mercy Regional Medical Center. “We’re very happy about that.”
Rupp said early on, the decision by Gov. Jared Polis to limit testing to those who were symptomatic limited the state’s ability to find positive cases. But since partnering with San Juan Basin Public Health, Mercy has begun to offer coronavirus tests to anyone in Southwest Colorado who wants one. SJBPH has also begun extensive contact tracing to limit community exposure.
But as the area begins to reopen, more health care workers and supplies will be needed to scale up those efforts to the entire community.
At Cedar Diagnostics, a private testing facility, there has been little help from state authorities. Michelle Roach, director of operations, said that although she’s been in contact with state and local health authorities, the most she’s gotten from the state is four boxes of N95 masks.
“We did have issues getting (supplies), but I am a very persistent person,“ Roach said. “At this time, everything we have done has been at our expense.”
On May 15, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced $11 billion in new funding will go to states, tribes and territories to increase testing capacity, with about $159 million of that going to Colorado.
In a statement, Sen. Cory Gardner described the package as an important part of the state’s ability to reopen.
“Our country’s well-being, both medically and financially, relies on our ability to see where the illness is and where it is not,” Gardner said. “I’m pleased to see this critical funding from the CDC delivered to Colorado to expand our testing capabilities.”
Roach said that in Denver, where Cedar Diagnostics also has facilities, the company can perform 2,000 tests per day, but in Durango, she’s limited by both space and workforce. She’s hoping some of that new federal funding will go toward solving both issues.
“Making people available to collect the tests, that’s been the hardest part for us,” Roach said. “There’s only 11 people that work in Durango, and we have an entire community that wants to be tested.”
Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, also said more health care staffing is needed if La Plata County and the surrounding community were to do mass testing.
“As testing expands, we are likely to identify more cases and need additional capacity for case investigations and follow up in order to contain cases,” Jollon wrote in an email to the The Durango Herald. “As communities ‘open up,’ these investigations require more staffing and more hours.”
Roach said her facility in Durango, one of several in the area offering coronavirus testing, has to take in patients two at a time because of space restrictions, which severely limits how many tests she can perform a day. Ideally, she said, more businesses would contract with Cedar Diagnostics to have someone visit the office and test everyone at once to dramatically speed up the work and reach more of the community.
“We walk in the door, we do all your employees, we walk back out,” Roach said. “It’s very easy.”
On the whole, Rupp said that since Mercy began collaborating with SJBPH on May 6, testing capabilities have dramatically improved. That makes her more optimistic about the area’s ability to fight the pandemic with additional funding going forward.
“We get numbers, we get updates, we also share with each other the changes in how this virus presents in patients,” Rupp said. “When we partnered with San Juan Basin Public Health, it became much better.”
Jacob Wallace is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.