Pitkin County’s director of public health described a local state of alert regarding the coronavirus outbreak, with extensive planning and preparation going on should the community spread of the respiratory disease reach the Rocky Mountain region.
Among the components of the preemptive response is the availability of a “negative pressure” room in the Aspen Valley Hospital emergency room, which prevents the spread of communicable disease and is where a person who is under investigation for having coronavirus could be safely tested.
The facility has yet to be used for a coronavirus test, according to Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann. She said Saturday that there have been “rule out” cases locally, where a person exhibits coughing, fever and shortness of breath, but none have risen to the level of needing a coronavirus test.
Those tests must be administered under the guidance of the state health department, Koenemann said, and the coronavirus test, at this stage of the response, will only be given if a person has symptoms and has been in “close contact” with another individual with a confirmed case; has symptoms and has traveled to a global hot spot for the virus, such as China, South Korea, Italy or Iran; or has severe respiratory illness that requires hospitalization and other diagnoses such as influenza have been ruled out.
As of Saturday there were no confirmed cases in Colorado, but “it is only a matter of time before cases emerge,” according to a Pitkin County news release issued on Sunday.
“Pitkin County Public Health is preparing with its partners for potential widespread community transmission of COVID-19,” the release says. Preparation includes daily phone calls with local partners, including other regional county health departments, and at least weekly check-ins with the state.
Koenemann said the current posture is a “containment response.” If and when cases emerge in the region or locally, Pitkin County and other local health departments will escalate to a “mitigation response.” Along with institutional partners including hospitals, schools, transportation providers and emergency responders, the local health department would activate response triggers based on protocol that has been previously outlined in the county’s pandemic and emergency operations plans.
Escalated responses could include school and day care closures and transportation impacts. Koenemann noted that RFTA has its own pandemic response plan. The county public health director can invoke a special order mandating quarantine for persons under investigation and confirmed cases if need be.
Anyone showing signs of respiratory illness most likely has influenza, but should undergo voluntary home isolation, the county public health department recommends. Respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene are as critical as ever. All families should use this opportunity to do basic preparedness planning.
“Think of the measures you and your family might take if we had several ‘snow days’ in a row; such as extra medications on hand, child care if schools close, etc.,” Pitkin County Public Health emergency preparedness coordinator Carlyn Porter said in the release. “Take this time to dust off, or make a preparedness plan for any disaster or emergency.”
Koenemann said the situation is “rapidly evolving” with the disease but that it’s not time to panic.
“The key message I want people to walk away with is that the risk is low for the general population in the U.S., that we are on top of it as far as communicating with our partners and understanding the evolution of what’s going on. In general, my message is just to be prepared,” she said.
Koenemann added she is encouraged by both the strength of local partnerships and the quality of the nation’s public health systems.
“A lot of people don’t even know we are here until something like this happens,” she said. “And we do have a lot of folks that really are so brilliant across the nation … and there is work that we do every day behind the scenes on a lot of these things. I think [it’s important] just to recognize the value of the public health system in a place like the United States.”