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With Hospital Reaching Capacity, Montezuma County Officials Respond to Covid Surge

Montezuma County Youtube Channel
Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria, third from left, speaks to public health officials in a screenshot from the Montezuma County Board of Public Health meeting Nov. 10.

Montezuma County is just now experiencing its first wave of the coronavirus, according to a statement by Southwest Health System CEO Tony Sudduth last week. The recent surge in positive tests, tallied at 147 active cases Wednesday, has placed stress on local healthcare resources and pushed health authorities to double down on their calls to take precautions.

In an email to KSJD Tuesday, Sudduth said Southwest Memorial Hospital averaged between 4 and 5 Covid-19 inpatients per day last week. Although daily changes in the hospital’s capacity have little relevance to the overall situation, he explained, the recent trends have been “very concerning” for the county and Southwest Health System.

Note: Southwest Health System is a financial supporter of KSJD.

“At one point yesterday [Monday] we had 5 COVID positive patients in our ER,” Sudduth said. “For most of last week we were completely full in all areas of the hospital.”

The hospital typically has 21 beds available, Sudduth said, and its ICU contains four beds, according to the SHS website. But regional hospital capacity has also been limited, making it difficult for patients who need to be transferred to other care.

“The last patient we had to send out was sent to Denver as there were no beds available anywhere closer,” he said Tuesday.

Sudduth also noted a Covid-19 testing positivity rate of 16.1% on 456 tests last week, meaning 1 in 6.1 people tested positive for the virus. Over the past two weeks, he said Montezuma County reported 422.64 total positive cases per 100,000 in population, a measure the state uses to classify where the counties are trending.

“While the State has not yet designated Montezuma as such, a positivity rate over 15%, more than two COVID Admissions in a single day over the past two weeks, and the rate per 100,000 over 300, all place Montezuma County in the COVID Red Zone,” Sudduth said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment still reported Montezuma County at the yellow “safer at home” level Wednesday afternoon, though it noted a possible difference between state and county data due to data reporting timelines.

Montezuma County Public Health Department Director Bobbi Lock underscored the importance of the hospital’s capacity in an email to KSJD Tuesday.

“Our healthcare system is critical to the health of our community,” she said. “If our hospital does not have the capacity to care for patients … then people of our county will be sent elsewhere, whether the diagnosis is COVID or a motor vehicle accident."

Lock said the health department has also been pushed to its maximum capacity, with all of its nurses involved in case investigation on each positive result. Case investigation includes notifying and isolating those who test positive, plus notifying people they've contacted through contact tracing, she said. The department is in the process of hiring three additional nurses to help with the workload.

At the weekly Montezuma County Commission meeting Tuesday afternoon, where the commissioners had entered a special session as the Montezuma County Board of Health, commissioner Jim Candelaria asked Lock whether the health department’s current resources were enough. In response, Lock said she hoped the new nurses would help manage the response.

“If our plan goes the way we have planned, I think we will be ok,” Lock said. “I don’t know [if] that’s going to be absolutely enough—we may need more.”

In general, Candelaria compared the response to the pandemic to a response to a fire. He expressed his willingness to continue to support the public health department’s response to the rising cases, and stressed the importance of local testing capacity.

Lock also continued to emphasize the importance of techniques to reduce the spread of the virus. She said it was important to continue public health safety measures, even though she realized many people are fatigued with the requests.

“Leaders in our community could help us with the message of encouraging all symptomatic people to stay home along with the other public message of social distancing, mask wearing, washing hands and cleaning frequently touched surfaces,” Lock told KSJD. “Modeling the desired behaviors is always the best messaging.”

She also said her department is also encouraging people to reconsider their upcoming holiday plans.

"We have already seen an increase of cases following Halloween, which is typically a much smaller occasion than the upcoming holidays,” she said, discouraging residents from planning large gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“There should be no more than 10 people at a time in one room and no more than two households represented, actually best if it is from one household,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners spoke about the importance of individuals taking responsibility to control the virus's spread. That included residents following public health recommendations and staying home when they show symptoms.

"I think for us, as a board of health, it’s a personal responsibility,” said Candelaria, after noting that the commission had not implemented any public health mandates. “You have to take that responsibility within yourself, to take care of yourself … personal responsibility is the key to this entire thing,” the commissioner—who, like his counterparts, did not wear a mask at the meeting—stated as the meeting concluded.

On Tuesday evening, the Cortez City Council passed a resolution “strongly encouraging” the wearing of masks in public, The Journal reported. The Montezuma Cortez RE-1 School District also decided to move to remote classes beginning Thursday, citing a rise in positive cases among staff and students. The Mancos RE-1 School District will continue in-person learning, however, and the Dolores RE-4A School Board will discuss the matter Thursday.

This post has been updated to reflect case data for Wednesday, Nov. 11.

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.
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