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Jill Ryan, state’s top health official, lives out Colorado’s isolation advice

Former Eagle County Commissioner quarantined her family in her Edwards home after husband's positive COVID-19 test

Jill Ryan has been the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment since Jan. 2019. For the past three weeks she has been in COVID-19 isolation at her Miller Ranch home.
Special to the Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — As Colorado launched its statewide COVID-19  stay-at-home order, the state’s top public health official was already living the reality of isolation at her Miller Ranch home in Edwards.

Jill Ryan, former Eagle County Commissioner and current executive director of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has been sequestered in her home since March 13.

“On March 12 (Thursday) I was in Pitkin County helping with their cluster of cases,” Ryan said. The following weekend, Gov. Jared Polis issued his order for ski resorts to close and Ryan learned that COVID-19 was striking close to home.

“My husband showed some symptoms and he had a coworker who had tested positive,” she said. The three Ryans were all tested, but even before they had results in hand, they began their isolation protocol.

“On March 13, we bought enough supplies for 14 days in anticipation we would have to hunker down,” Ryan said. “I talked to other state officials about not coming to the office in Denver on Monday and staying at home and complying  with what we recommended to the general public.”

Eventually, their COVID -19 test results yielded a positive result for Ryan’s husband and negative results for her and the couple’s son. 

“None of us left the house for 14 days,” Ryan said. “We had what we needed here and my husband and I worked from home.”

There was plenty of work to keep them both busy.

“This event has been on such a massive scale that, honestly, I have just been working from sun up to sun down since March 5,” Ryan said. “My husband has been the one making sure that our son has been dong his online learning and helping with his school assignments.”

Practice what you preach

Ryan felt, as the state’s top health official, she needed to model Colorado’s social distancing rules.

“Social distancing is the best strategy we have to slow down the speed of transmission,” she said.

The state’s COVID-19 situation remains concerning, but Ryan noted that three weeks ago it was even bleaker. Without social distancing precautions in place, each person who contracted the virus was likely to spread it to three to four additional residents. But by closing schools, restaurants and bars, recreation facilities and everything but essential services, Colorado has improved its COVID-19 outlook.

“Social distancing really did slow down the spread of transmission,” Ryan noted. “Gov. Polis recognized what a sacrifice it is for people to have to stay home and for business to have to operate in this new normal or close down for a period of time.  The reason we did that is we have to slow down the transmission of this so it doesn’t overwhelm our hospital systems.”

Ryan noted that if that happens, patients who need ICU beds and cannot get that level of care because of overwhelmed hospital facilities will not survive COVID-19.

“Social distancing allows hospitals time to prepare. It slows transmission to a manageable level for our health care systems Ultimately, people staying home will save lives,” she said.

Mountain outbreaks

The Ryan family is now coming out of isolation, just as many other Colorado families begin their 14-day sequestrations. Like their neighbors in Eagle County, the Ryans experienced an early introduction to COVID-19.

“When we first saw this virus, positive cases were in the mountain communities. We saw the increases in case numbers go quicker here than they did on the Front Range,” Ryan said. “It makes sense that, because there was wider transmission of COVID-19 in other parts of the world and particularly in Europe, the ski resorts who attract international travelers reported cases first.”

Because the virus arrived here sooner than other parts of the state, Ryan said Eagle County is a few days ahead of the rest of Colorado in the virus progression. She offered words of praise for the local COVID-19 response.

“Eagle County government has been an absolute leader in this. Their recommendations have been right on at the right time.”

Back to the office

After nearly three weeks in isolation, Ryan plans to head back to her Denver office next week.

The indications are that April will be the apex of COVID-19 cases in the state and the nation. She urged all Colorado residents to take proper precautions and follow state testing and isolation guidelines.

In her role as the state’s top health official, Ryan also noted that even after this spring’s peak,  COVID-19 may be with us all for quite some time.

“With social distancing, we slowed down the spread of the virus, but that means the disease will be with us for a longer period of time,” Ryan explained. “The goal is if we can slow transmission enough that a single person is only infecting one other person, that is a stable level.”

Eventually, the national goal is to transition to a mass testing and containment model instead of a social distancing strategy. But the United States isn’t there yet.

“The whole idea behind social distancing is you do it early enough. I think the local and state orders happened at the right time for this epidemic in Colorado,” she said. “We will just have to watch it going forward and closely monitor it.


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