While Some In Colorado Can’t Get A Coronavirus Test, San Miguel County Will Test Everyone

March 19, 2020
An array of medical masks on a bed at St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.An array of medical masks on a bed at St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
An array of medical masks on a bed at St. Joseph Hospital, March 10, 2020.

It is a lucky time to be a Telluride resident.

Every person living in San Miguel County — sick or not — now qualifies for a free COVID-19 test. It is the first known place in the country testing on such a mass scale, and researchers and county public health experts say they hope it provides data on both how widespread the disease is and how strict quarantine measures can help stem the contagion.

The county isn’t paying for it. The tests are being paid for by an international biomedical company whose executives have a residence in Telluride.

“This is a mental health issue. People are isolated, people are scared … What they need is information and transparency. This is about empowering people,” said Lou Reese, co-CEO of United Biomedical/c19, which is performing the blood tests.

The tests detect a blood antibody to identify the presence of the virus.

“We’re creating the best-in-class model for the country for how you create safe zones and this first study is to provide invaluable information for other communities in terms of what the level of spread is and the duration of that spread," Reese said.

San Miguel has about 8,200 residents, including the city of Telluride. County public health director Grace Franklin called the county testing “fortunate” and noted the international travel in and out of the area — particularly in the winter — means it could be a good testing ground.

“They approached us to partner and offer residents free mass antibody testing for COVID-19,” Franklin said. “What an opportunity to get a better sense what the optics truly are for this disease and how it is spread in this community and how can we make educated approaches ... to mitigate this.”

The tests are voluntary but Reese and his co-CEO Mei Mei Hu hope everyone gets two tests two weeks apart to gauge antibody presence for COVID-19. 

Particularly, the two executives are interested in how many people have already had it and might now be immune. 

This week, San Miguel County put into place the most restrictive rules in the state — asking people to shelter in place and halting all gatherings and closing all non-essential businesses.

“What if we find out the spread is more than we ever thought and everyone is already infected and that would mean the disease wasn’t as deadly as we think — wouldn’t it be great to have that data?” Reese said. “But right now we’re looking at the precipice of a black hole of lack of information. Of course we’re worried and concerned.” 

Widespread testing is a challenge that has vexed state officials since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For weeks, Gov. Jared Polis has spoken of the necessity to increase testing to understand how the illness is moving and spreading around Colorado.

“There is obviously a great need and a great demand for testing that is struggling to be met,” said Scott Bookman, incident commander for COVID-19 at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

Bookman noted the state doesn’t have any control over what counties do.

“It’s a decision they’ve made at the county level,” he said. “We are evaluating the efficacy of that, but counties certainly have the ability to make their own decisions.”

The state does not license the tests, so the company is free to perform the work in San Miguel. 

"It's not CDPHE's role to approve of a test such as that. They've gotten clearance by the FDA to do this work and we are evaluating our own interpretation of the efficacy of that," Bookman said. "We have not made a determination of the right strategy is, but we are committed to expand testing across the state to the best of our ability."

To date, 2,952 people have been tested statewide with almost 300 positive results. But access to the tests has been uneven. The Greeley Tribune reported Thursday that Weld County's health department still has not received any test kits. One resident there has died from the disease.

San Miguel County has had no known cases so far, though state officials are still waiting for the results from tests performed at a drive-up lab with 100 pre-screened patients earlier this week.

“WE were told we won’t have the results until Monday,” Franklin said. “We do not want to wait a week as this disease is growing exponentially every day.”

Franklin and others point out Telluride has a very small and limited health care system and they don’t want to exhaust their resources.

“We don’t have any real overnight hospital beds,” town councilman Tom Watkinson said. “We have … extremely limited access to testing and the supplies for testing and so that’s the drive.”

But given the growing controversy over celebrity and athlete access to COVID-19 testing, the mass effort in a ski community sometimes referred to as “where America’s wealthy go incognito,” may raise some eyebrows.

Mei Mei Hu, co-CEO of United Biomedical /c19, said she hopes her company’s work will help research across the country. Her company was started by her mother and is best known for work on a potential vaccine for Alzheimer’s.

“This is to give information and be effective,” Mei Mei said. “In this small community, where it’s quite unique … It’s going to help provide a better assessment of what is the disease outbreak and the prevalence.”

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