Eagle County is ‘past the peak’ in its COVID-19 road to recovery

But top health official says testing delays remain a roadblock

Eagle County now leads the nation in per-capita testing for the COVID-19 virus.
Courtesy Vail Health

It’s the question that persists during this pandemic, with days running together and social isolation making us all lose track of time.

Basically, where the heck are we? 

More than five weeks out from Eagle County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case on March 6, the county’s top health official said we’re on the other side of the hill, heading down.

“I think it’s safe to say we’ve moved past the peak,” said Heath Harmon, the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment. “Our data is showing that. We can look at that in three different ways. We’ve looked at that in onset dates, we’ve also looked at that by sort of self-monitoring with the symptom tracker platform that we have up. And we’ve also been looking at what does this look like by test date? And all three of those models right now are telling us we’ve moved beyond that peak.”

Are we there yet?

Whether Colorado, as a state, has moved beyond its own summit is a point of contention.

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One prominent national model predicting the pandemic’ trajectory shows the state hit its peak on April 4. That’s according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which, in its model, assumes “full social distancing.”

But Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the state’s top health official and a former Eagle County Commissioner who underwent isolation in her Edwards home after her husband tested positive, told reporters last week that the state’s public health department is confident “our peak has not hit.”

Heath Harmon

Harmon also stressed that while Eagle County has moved beyond its case peak, in his estimation, that doesn’t mean life will be going back to normal anytime soon.

Rather, he said, Eagle County residents need to remain vigilant about the current public health orders in place while looking forward to a “tapering” of those orders in the weeks and months to come.

“We need to make sure that we’re seeing a clear two-week trend where the cases are coming down,” Harmon said. “We don’t have to get to zero cases in our community to start lifting the restrictions, we just have to see that we’ve got that precipitous drop and that we’re moving toward zero.”

Testing still an issue

Harmon said the biggest challenge for local and state officials in the coronavirus fight is the ability to test and confirm cases rapidly. Harmon said Eagle County has done more tests per capita than any county in the state. The county also had the state’s first drive-through testing facility and its health care infrastructure was prepared for the onset of the virus, with a task force launching in January.

“Vail Health, Colorado Mountain Medical, the rest of our medical providers, had all said, in advance of it arriving here, that we’re going to test, we’re ready to do this, we understand what precautions we need to take, so let’s do it,” Harmon said. “I think the challenge that we continue to see just delays in test results. Despite the fact that we’ve moved past the peak here for Eagle County, we still are seeing some level of transmission. Some of this is happening in the community. A lot of it is still happening in households. So that’s where a lot of our focus is right now on the disease prevention side is really still trying to further limit in those areas, especially around household transmission.”

A roadmap to normalcy

How quickly local cases accumulated, showing widespread community transmission, only crystallized the importance of following the public health orders as local schools and ski resorts close d and restaurants and bars went to take-out and delivery only.

The American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think tank, recently released a report titled “National Coronavirus Response: A Road Map to Reopening” authored by public health experts that has gained traction with government officials for outlining four benchmarks for showing the country is ready to reopen.  

  • Hospitals must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care.
  • Authorities must be able to test everyone who has symptoms, and to get reliable results quickly — which could be well more than 750,000 tests a week in the U.S. alone.
  • Health agencies must be able to monitor confirmed cases, trace contacts of the infected, and have at-risk people go into isolation or quarantine.
  • There must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days, because it can take that long for symptoms to appear.

Of those four road markers, Harmon said the ability to get reliable test results quickly is the one that remains in doubt in Eagle County. It’s a national problem that continues to trickle down to the state and county levels.

“Can we test everybody? I think that still remains a challenge,” Harmon said. “There’s a couple of tests out there right now that give us results anywhere from 15 or 20 minutes to a couple of hours. There’s just a number of rapid testing technologies that are going to become available in the near future. We just need to make sure they get to all the markets.”

Harmon said the ability to get rapid test results makes everything else easier.

“Because it’s so much more helpful, not only to provide the test but to also then provide the results while the patient is still in that health care clinic because then what we can do is implement immediately the isolation measures that we need to,” he said. “That just helps improve the reporting.”

Harmon said the “capacity of our medical system right now is as strong as it ever has been,” noting that local providers continue to have the ability to respond to the patients that do come into offices and testing sites with coronavirus symptoms while at the same time maintaining the ability to meet with patients dealing with other medical issues.

On being able to monitor confirmed cases and trace contacts, Harmon said the county hasn’t had issues there, either.

“We have the capacity to be able to do the investigations and the isolations and the quarantine,” he said. “We just need to make sure that we’re able to get the testing results more quickly.”

In the interim, as more and better tests come online, Harmon said the county is already making plans for a return to a more normal life, compared to the new normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s really important that internally we’re having those conversations,” he said. “We’ll take a tiered approach. Maybe we could think about events that are currently restricted that might pose a lower risk for spread of the virus … and still having the ability to maintain social distance. Those might be areas where we consider how to start back or taper back some of those restrictions. It’s not like, all of the sudden on May 1, we’re going to go back to the way were on May 1 of 2019. We’ll still have, for some time, social distancing measures in place, but we do want to put together a plan that allows us to think very thoughtfully about how we taper back those restrictions so we can improve our social recovery and our economic recovery.”

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