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San Juan Basin Public Health now knows how many COVID-19 tests have been performed

Data show the region’s positive rate about 5%, lower than state average
San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon said Friday that Mercy Regional Medical Center has agreed to provide its COVID testing numbers directly to the health department.

San Juan Basin Public Health finally has a better handle on the number of COVID-19 tests performed in the region, with Mercy Regional Medical Center providing its data directly to the local health department, SJBPH Executive Director Liane Jollon said Friday.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, health care facilities have been required to report only positive cases, not the total number of tests conducted.

“This has been a trouble spot for this entire process,” Jollon said.

Mercy Regional Medical Center was the first facility in the region to offer tests, which were performed only on patients with severe symptoms. Mercy has since started offering communitywide testing.

But obtaining the total number of tests performed was an obstacle for local health officials, Jollon said.

Mercy spokeswoman Sarah Silvernail wrote in an email to The Durango Herald that the hospital has “always reported this information daily to the state of Colorado, and our local health department ... has always had access to this information.”

Jollon, however, maintains state officials were overloaded and unable to provide the data. On top of that, state data appear inaccurate and can’t be trusted, she said.

State data show La Plata County has performed 326 tests, when in fact, SJBPH has been able to confirm the number is nearly 1,500 tests. A spokesman with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could not immediately clarify the discrepancy.

Jollon said the local health department had asked Mercy directly for its testing numbers and was denied. The hospital has also declined to release testing data to the Herald on several occasions. Mercy’s Silvernail did not respond to follow-up questions about the issue.

Jollon said Friday that Mercy has agreed to provide its numbers directly to SJBPH, which fills the last data gap for having an accurate count of the number of tests performed in the region.

Cedar Diagnostics, a local lab that started offering communitywide testing April 9 in Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs, and handles all tests conducted through Durango Urgent Care and Pagosa Medical Group, has been providing its numbers to the health department. And Pagosa Springs Medical Center, which also offers tests, provides its numbers.

As a result, local health officials now have a more complete idea of the virus’ presence.

Among all the facilities in La Plata and Archuleta counties that offer testing, nearly 1,500 tests have been performed. With 74 total positive cases between the two counties, that is a 5% rate of positive cases.

Of the 1,500 or so tests, Mercy has conducted 177, Cedar Diagnostics has processed 1,031 and SJBPH has carried out 176.

The total number of tests does come with a caveat: The data do not break down where those tested live. So, it is unclear how many people from outside the community were tested here.

But Jollon said that number likely evens out when considering Archuleta and La Plata county residents could have been tested outside the community.

Having a better data-tracking system is a major step forward in tracking the coronavirus and its presence in the region, Jollon said. Being able to track the number of tests performed and positive cases allows health officials to better understand the rate of infection, even if the number of tests performed fluctuates over time.

“It’s another data point as we’re learning more about this infection,” she said. “When so much is unknown about a new infection, the more testing you have, the better position you’re in to understand it.”

And, having the total number of tests performed will help businesses as they begin to reopen, allowing health officials to more easily identify a spike in confirmed cases.

“We’re going to be well-positioned for an early-warning system with our phased reopening,” Jollon said.

Jollon said the region’s 5% positive rate shows there’s enough testing available, and that residents are doing a good job containing the spread of the virus. Unlike some places in the U.S., residents in Southwest Colorado have several options to be tested.

The state of Colorado’s positive test rate is listed at 20%, but Jollon said that number is likely inaccurate. She said the state has a good handle on the number of confirmed positive cases, but less so on the total number of tests performed.

In all, the state says 96,772 people have been tested and 18,829 tests came back positive. But given the state’s data for La Plata County are so off, it’s not likely the statewide numbers are accurate, Jollon said.

SJBPH will add the number of tests carried out to its data dashboard on its website. A system is now in place for hospitals to report, and the numbers will be updated weekly.

Why a system wasn’t in place beforehand can be attributed to a number of reasons, but mainly, it’s because the outbreak happened so fast, sowing confusion, and there wasn’t a national testing strategy in place to require health care facilities to report numbers, Jollon said.

In Southwest Colorado, at least, it seems the situation has been remedied.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Jollon said.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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