10 coronavirus questions for Jill Hunsaker Ryan: Colorado’s top public health official talks testing, social distancing, ski resorts
The Vail Daily on Friday got 10 minutes on the phone with Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Colorado’s top public health official, to discuss the measures the state has been taking to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Ryan, a former two-term Eagle County commissioner, was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis appointed as executive director of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in Jan. 2019.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the most important thing you want people in Eagle County to know right now?
To follow the county social distancing public health orders. That’s really important so you don’t have large groups of people gathering. And also, it’s just very important that if people have symptoms of illness, like a cold, that they’re staying home from work and keeping their kids home from school.
Do you know if all these cases in Eagle County are in the Eagle River Valley? Or are some of them in the Roaring Fork Valley, like in Basalt or El Jebel?
I do not know. Not that I’m aware of. There are cases in Pitkin County that have been detected that have tested positive. There are cases in Eagle County that have tested positive. There are also cases out there that have been undetected, so, I think people should assume it’s in their community and take preventative measures that the governor has talked about, like washing your hands, staying home from work when you’re sick, keeping your kids home from school. The social distancing. Maybe, even, starting to stock up on supplies that you might need if you’re sick and have to stay home for 10 to 14 days. That’s medications, baby formula, food, even pet food. We don’t want people running to the store, even if they do get sick. We want them to stay home, even if they’re not able to get a test, just to be safe.
The social distancing thing. They sent out a public health order about limiting event sizes, large groups, but what about the ski resorts where there are more than 50 people in a lift line. Or you’re going to be in a gondola or on a chairlift.
We know that standing outside is, of course, safer than in closed places. The more distance between people, like we say, 6 feet apart. I know that ski resorts are putting in some guidelines about not commingling groups when they get on the gondola and lift, and I think that’s important. And, then, of course, the governor, in general, has been advising people that are age 65 or older, people that are at risk for complications because they already have medical conditions, to not go to places where there are large crowds.
In your investigations, do you know how community spread started in Eagle County?
I don’t have any insight to that.
Could ski resorts close?
I haven’t been in discussions about that. In the coming days, we will continue to monitor the transmission statewide. And then make social distancing recommendations accordingly. And, of course, local public health agencies might be more aggressive than the state is, and that’s good. They know their communities best. We support whatever public health measures they think they need to take.
What does “flattening the curve” mean? What do people need to know about that approach?
In any sort of epidemic where you have a susceptible population, and that’s a population that’s not immunized, and in the case of COVID-19, we don’t have a vaccine for it, it’s a novel virus, which means that none of us have immunity, and because of that, it’s easily spread person to person. And that’s why the (World Health Organization) this week called this a pandemic because you’ve got widespread transmission worldwide. So, if we didn’t take any preventative measures, if we didn’t do social distancing, and people didn’t have access to soap and water to wash their hands, if people weren’t diligent about staying home when they were sick, the transmission would be much quicker. And really, the epidemic curve is just the number of people who’ve been infected over time. If you have a large number of people infected at a time, you have, of course, more social disruption but you also just have a complete overwhelming of the health care system. So, it’s why we’re trying to slow down the spread. Everybody’s susceptible, since there is no immunities. It’s the first time that our bodies have come in contact with this virus. The way to slow down the spread or flatten the curve is, over time, we want less people infected and we want to draw out the epidemic so that the health care system can really absorb patients that need medical care from COVID-19 and yet still be able to treat regular clientele that still need medical care and not overwhelm the system. That’s why the preventative measures. Slow the spread and help flatten the epidemic curve while this virus just quite frankly runs through the population worldwide.
Have you been on the phone with the people who have your job in other states like Washington and California to glean lessons they’ve learned while dealing with this crisis?
Yes, all state public health officials have been having regular phone calls. Governors have been having regular phone calls. And then Gov. Polis has been in contact with Gov. Inslee in Washington to learn about what worked there, what that state wishes they could’ve had done. They were one of the first states to see cases. We have the benefit that we were several weeks behind other countries and even some of the states in the U.S. We have the benefit of learning from them both what did work and what didn’t work. And what they wish they would’ve done, having hindsight in how this virus has rolled out.
What have you learned. What are you doing differently?
We’ve been trying to ramp up testing around the state. The governor has been good at mobilizing testing supplies to this state. We stood up community testing sites. The complication with this virus is that it’s hard to have it tested in a doctor’s office because the doctors don’t wear the personal protective equipment needed. We’ve been having to send people to emergency rooms to get tested, so we’ve really been able to ramp up testing in Colorado, find those positive cases, issue isolation orders to those with a positive test, issue quarantine orders to their close contacts so that they stay in place for the duration of the illness or until they have a negative test to try to slow down the epidemic.
Drawing out the epidemic, like you said, what can you tell people how long this might be for their lives being disrupted?
No one knows, but I would expect the virus is going to be with us for months. It may slow down in the summer because people tend to congregate less indoors. And just with the warmer weather. We could see it pick up again in the fall, but we’re just not sure. You had asked, what we learned from other states. What Washington recommended to us early was putting measures in place early to protect the most vulnerable populations. We are issuing public health orders that really restricts visitors to long-term care facilities and screens people before they go in those facilities.
Are there enough tests?
We’re doing everything we can to expand testing. That’s all I’ll say.
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Eagle County Schools has released a draft document detailing how the school district intends to return in-person and hybrid instruction starting Aug. 18.