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COVID testing shortage hits Eagle County

Monoclonal antibody treatments are also in short supply as cases mount

As COVID-19 rages on, local providers are starting to feel the stress of a national shortage of PCR tests.
Ali Longwell/Vail Daily

As the latest COVID-19 variant continues to spread across not only Eagle County but the entire country, national shortages of COVID-19 tests could hit Eagle County as early as next week.

Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, said in a call on Monday that even with the immense amount of testing resources available locally, the testing sites “collectively cannot meet the demand.”

“There is not a testing site in the valley that doesn’t have a line at this moment. All of our locations are running out of the testing kits,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a national shortage of those testing kits right now, and so we want people to start preparing mentally that probably this time next week, it’s going to be very difficult in this valley to get a PCR test that many folks might need for travel.”



PCR tests, he said, tell you if you’ve recently had COVID-19, if you’re infectious and if you’re recovering from it. This test is what is currently required to travel to certain countries and is more “sensitive” than the alternative rapid antigen test.

“We’re going to run out of PCR tests, and it’s just not going to be in our valley — it’s going to be nationwide, and it’s going to be in the next 10 to 14 days,” Lindley said, “However, an antigen test is just as good. Get your antigen test.”



Which, is where some positive news comes in.

“The good news is we have ample rapid tests in the valley,” he said. “Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has already sent us 5,000 tests, and we requested an additional 10,000 tests today, which we believe we’ll receive from them. We’ll have testing stations set up throughout the valley where people will be able to identify if they do have COVID-19 through an antigen test.”

In comparison to the PCR test, the rapid antigen tests simply indicate whether an individual is infectious, Lindley said.

While these tests may not be what is currently required to travel, it will serve the purpose of helping track cases and limit community spread.

“We’re going to have to change our mindset on what we think an appropriate test is,” Lindley said. “We’ve been preaching for two years at the national level: ‘PCR, PCR — you gotta get a PCR test.’ Well, most of the world has actually gone a different route; they’ve gone the antigen test, which the antigen test will actually tell you if you’re infectious for COVID-19. So, probably a better test in terms of seeing if someone is infectious.”

According to Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s director of public health, the county will “continue to work with our local and state partners to help meet the testing demand to our best ability.”

Harmon added that testing is also merely just one tool residents and visitors can use to combat the virus.

“We have learned throughout the pandemic that we can’t rely on any single tool or method to reduce the spread of this virus,” Harmon said. “Testing is one of many tools to combat COVID. We will continue to use multiple precautions, like wearing face coverings, getting vaccinated, and staying home if you’re sick.”

Vail Health is certainly not the only testing provider feeling the pinch. Through EagleCountyCovid.org, individuals can find a list of testing sites in Eagle County — be it through Vail Health, public health, the state or other third party providers. However, many clinics and testing sites that require appointments don’t have any until the weekend or early next week.

The Colorado Mountain Medical Urgent Care locations in Vail, Eagle and Avon also have limited testing available. These locations are not doing walk-up testing, or testing for travel, only for those who are sick and seeing a provider.

A Mako Medical employee administers a nasal swab COVID-19 test at a pop-up testing location last week outside the Transportation Center in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Nationwide shortages may also be exacerbated by local challenges as well. The website for RFV COVID Test — which is providing COVID-19 tests at local sites in Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum — notes a delay in their shipment: “Due to the storms, some sample deliveries were delayed. We expect all results from late last week to be in this evening, December 27.”

The site also indicates the company had no rapid tests available as of Monday afternoon.

Highline Medical Solutions, which has been providing COVID-19 testing for the last year and a half, was prepared for the surge with the new variant, said James Deighan, the company’s managing partner.

Deighan said when the omicron variant was first detected — with reports that the “spread will be like nothing we’ve seen yet — we stocked up on rapid tests, knowing there would be a high demand,” he said in a phone call on Monday.

Deighan said that the company has “thousands and thousands” of rapid tests available. The group will also be setting up a testing site in Vail on Wednesday at Checkpoint Charlie, where residents can pay to get a rapid antigen test.

Highline works with labs across the state — including Colorado Mountain Medical and Vail Health — to administer and get results for the PCR tests.

Over the past few weeks, Deighan said he has seen the demand increase significantly for its services, which include a COVID-19 testing concierge service, as well as workplace testing for businesses, available at HighlineCovidTesting.com.

“We’re trying to give people peace of mind,” he said, adding that they’re “helping keep the Vail Valley thriving with the sudden surge that came on here.”

In addition to testing, Vail Health is also close to running out of monoclonal antibodies, a new treatment available to those who are high risk for serious COVID-19.

Testing swabs are ready for use at the pop-up COVID-19 test location near the Welcome Center in Vail. Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

The hospital was poised to run out on Monday; however, the state sent an additional hundred treatments via the National Guard — enough treatments to get Vail Health through the weekend. After the weekend, Lindley is unsure of when the hospital will get more, due a national shortage of these monoclonal treatments. Another lost COVID-19 defense, he said.

‘Anybody is vulnerable’

A screenshot of the Eagle County COVID-19 dashboard shows the recent spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Eagle County Public Health/Courtesy Photo

Testing has played a critical role over the last few weeks as the omicron variant continues to run rampant in many Colorado resort communities. Cases in Eagle County are at an all-time high in the pandemic right now. According to Lindley, across all testing sites in Eagle County, 40% to 50% of tests are coming back positive.

“Essentially one out of every two people getting tested in this community is coming back positive,” he said.

According to the Eagle County’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of Monday, the incidence rate in Eagle County was 1,433 cases per 100,000.

The spread is such that “anywhere in this valley, if you’re around other people, you’re likely being exposed to COVID-19, specifically omicron,” Lindley said.

And these numbers only tell half the story, Lindley said, as they only account for residents’ cases and not visitors’.

“Over half of the tests that we’re doing are for visitors,” he said of Vail Health’s testing

Omicron, more than previous COVID-19 variants, also seems to be impacting everyone.

“We are seeing across the board, anybody is vulnerable to omicron, whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, boostered or not boostered, we’re seeing people get sick,” Lindley said. “The difference is the severity of the illness: Those that are vaccinated with the booster, it’s very mild if not even symptomatic. Those that are not vaccinated and don’t have a recent booster — it’s more severe.”

With this, there are not a lot of tools to protect yourself, Lindley said, adding that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated remains the best precautions for the community.

“Anywhere you go in the valley right now, you’re likely to be getting exposed the entire time you’re there,” he said. “Knowing that, wear the precautions you feel you need to protect yourself.”

Controlling workforce, hospitalizations

And as the virus rages through the community, Vail Health has seen impacts to its staff as well. As of Monday, it had 60 staffers on COVID-19 isolation orders — “significantly higher than we’ve ever seen,” Lindley said.

With that, the state has sent some reinforcements — four traveling registered nurses to be exact, with 18 more on the way over the next few weeks.

“We’re very grateful to the state for helping us out. That’s going to be a great help to our team,” he said. “We’ll be using those RNs in our emergency department and our Med Surge units, which we call our patient care unit, as well as our ICU, to ensure we can maintain our capacity through these next couple weeks.”

So far, Vail Health has yet to see an influx of hospitalizations due to the new variant. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t on the way.

“The challenge is we don’t know yet if omicron is in fact less severe — and that’s why we haven’t seen the increase in hospitalizations yet — or if it just hasn’t been enough time,” he said, adding that using the date it has seen from previous spikes of COVID-19, Vail Health “would expect to see our hospitalizations start to increase today, going forward through the 15th of January.”

However, that doesn’t mean the hospitals aren’t strained. Lindley said that Vail Health’s urgent care sites and emergency departments are operating at twotimes the historical volume for this time of year.

Future of the virus

As the latest variant proves its infectious nature, the pandemic has proven it is far from over.

“What I think it should teach us is, this is here to stay,” Lindley said. “We’re going to have more variants come, anytime we have an opportunity to update our armor — (such as) our vaccination status with a better vaccine — that maybe provides more protection. Hopefully everybody will do that.”

Aside from vaccinations, the best thing that individuals can do to protect themselves is “stay healthy, both mentally and physically.”

“Everybody wants a shot or a pill, but no one wants to put in the time to take their health seriously. It has probably the most significant impact,” Lindley said. “I don’t know how to motivate everybody to do that, but I think our community can do that.”


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