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As Montezuma County COVID-19 Case Total Nears 300, Health Officials Warn Of Further Spread

Daniel Rayzel
Health officials in Montezuma County are concerned with a continued increase in coronavirus cases, and are reminding the community to follow health others, like Colorado's mask mandate.

On Wednesday, November 4, the Montezuma County Public Health Department reported its highest number of COVID-19 cases in one day since the pandemic began in March, prompting hospital, school and county officials to ramp up their response to the virus. 

The 26 new cases brought the county’s total to 270, 45 of which were reported within the previous week. As of Wednesday, 97 of those cases are active, a tally which has more than doubled since Oct. 26.

The health department did not respond to requests for details Thursday about the case data or its response to the spike in case numbers.

Marc Meyer, director of pharmacy and infection control at Southwest Health System, told KSJD the county is following trends seen elsewhere in Colorado. Infections are mostly affecting people between 19 and 49 years old, which Meyer said could be attributed to the parents of kids attending school.

“It is very concerning to me,” he said, adding that the Southwest Memorial Hospital is looking at its expansion plan to provide additional beds for COVID-19 patients.

Note: Southwest Health System is an underwriter of KSJD.

The Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School District has seen an uptick in cases since Wednesday, when Montezuma-Cortez High School announced that a student had been diagnosed with COVID-19, resulting in the temporary suspension of a bus route. Another case was reported in a Kemper Elementary kindergarten class on Thursday. The county health department contacted individuals who had close contact with the infected student, requiring them to quarantine for 14 days.

In a Facebook post Wednesday evening, Superintendent Lori Haukeness announced all students would move to online learning after Thanksgiving. The decision was made in coordination with MCPHD and SHS, who recommended the move. The district has planned a parent town hall on Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom to share further details.

Even though Gov. Jared Polis announced Thursday that he will not issue new restrictions, Meyer echoed the governor’s other message by urging residents to continue wearing masks, thoroughly washing their hands, and socially distancing from others.

The seasonal flu has not had a major impact on care capacity at the hospital, Meyer says, but following the same health orders will also help control its spread.

“We’re not seeing a big flu push yet, which is good,” Meyer said.

Even with expanded capacity, the extra beds are meant for patients with milder cases of COVID-19. Patients who require more intensive care, like long-term intubation, are more likely to be transferred elsewhere.

In a statement shared on SHS’s Facebook page, CEO Tony Sudduth said the hospital has had a full ICU, and warned of the impacts the rate of spread has on local health care providers.

“Let me be clear, a continued increase in COVID cases that we are currently seeing will take Southwest Health over the edge as far as being able to handle the patient load,” he wrote. “No doubt about it.”

Sudduth also said other hospitals in the Four Corners are nearing or have already reached ICU capacity.

In response to the rising case numbers, Montezuma County public information officer Vicki Shaffer told KSJD the county reopened its emergency operations center Wednesday night. The center had been closed in late June following a decrease in the number of cases, she said. That center will allow local municipalities, law enforcement, and health care workers to coordinate with each other and respond more quickly to the virus’s potential impacts on the community.

County officials will begin to send out further information to the public in the coming days, Shaffer said, but the county‘s main message is that people should avoid public places if they show symptoms.

“If you’re sick, stay home. Don’t take the risk of infecting your coworkers or other people in the county,” Shaffer said. “People have the tendency to push through illness, and keep working anyway. It’s not worth the risk.”

She also encouraged people to wear their masks, wash their hands, and practice social distancing.

County officials are working with the health department to develop messaging about the importance of wearing masks, she said, though she declined to provide further details.

Southwest Memorial Hospital offers drive-up testing for people with COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. Cedar Diagnostics in Cortez also offers COVID-19 tests by appointment, regardless of whether patients exhibit symptoms.

This story has been updated.

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.