Tri-County health director takes precautions amid illness but opts against COVID-19 test

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When local officials from the Tri-County Health Department's jurisdiction — which serves more than 1.5 million people — gathered in Douglas County and livestreamed a “virtual town hall” about the COVID-19 pandemic, there was one notable absence.

John Douglas, Tri-County's executive director, joined by Skype from his home while other public health officials sat in front of cameras in the Douglas County commissioners' hearing room.

The head of Colorado's largest health department was sick with a respiratory illness on March 11. He chose to practice what he's been preaching during the COVID-19 outbreak by staying home while ill and avoiding spreading germs to others.

No, he doesn't know if he is sick with COVID-19.

Douglas has not been tested for the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe because testing, he said, is still limited.

“If testing was easy and widely available, I would probably get tested to help me understand how long I should self-isolate and because I am very curious,” Douglas said by email. “However, while we are doing our best to help support broader access, testing is still limited, and I don't want to compete for testing resources for those with a great need to know.”

Those individuals include anyone who has traveled to high-risk areas, has a known exposure to someone with COVID-19, or has a greater chance of exposing a vulnerable population, such as health care workers.

As of March 13, Douglas was still at home, isolating himself and “acting as though I am potentially contagious with something.” He'll do so until he feels better, and is taking precautions around his healthy family members, he said.

Testing capabilities were in the spotlight on March 13 as Gov. Jared Polis held a news conference where he spoke at length about the state's progress in testing people for COVID-19 and the need for more testing in Colorado and across the nation.

“We need to dramatically increase our testing capacity. Frankly, we needed to dramatically increase our testing capacity months ago,” Polis said.

Polis said he expressed his frustrations to Vice President Mike Pence, and added that he believes a lack of early action in Washington to set up mass testing capabilities “has hampered our ability to avoid mass disruption to our lives and economy.”

Polis characterized testing as a crucial step in providing epidemiologists more information on the virus and a clearer picture of the virus's spread in the state. It also helps inform people who are infected, and makes sure they know what to do.

The state's capacity for testing has increased recently. Private labs are now able to offer COVID-19 tests and the state now has two drive-through testing labs. But demand is high.

Colorado's first drive-up testing lab in Lowry closed early on March 12 because of high volume. The center served more than 650 people in two days. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced March 12 it would determine the best cut-off in a lengthy line of cars with occupants waiting three or more hours to be seen. Those waiting in line but not served on March 12 would have priority the following day.

At the time of Polis' March 13 news conference, the lab had not reopened because of inclement weather. Still, the governor had activated the National Guard, from which medics are conducting training to administer tests around the state. Training was underway March 13. The state announced later on March 13 it would reopen the drive-through center at a new location — the Denver Coliseum — on March 14.

Pitkin County opened a mobile lab that was operational March 13, Polis said.

The governor urged Colorado residents to stay aware of the latest COVID-19 updates. The virus will continue to spread, he said, and most people will know someone who becomes infected. He also stressed the need to avoid panic and stay calm.

The majority of cases will remain mild and most people will experience minor symptoms. Stopping COVID-19's spread is important to protect vulnerable populations and to prevent the healthcare system from growing overwhelmed, he said.

Anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 is encouraged to call his or her doctor first for guidance on how to manage their illness. A doctor's note is required for the drive-through testing centers and people should not seek testing without first consulting their health care provider.

Those who have been tested should stay home until they receive results. Anyone whose test is positive needs to stay home at least two weeks, Polis said.

“We want to continue to push the federal government as well as the private-sector partners to scale up testing,” Polis said. “Aggressive and sustained testing is a powerful tool for fighting the virus.”

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