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Denver COVID-19 testing sites can’t keep up with demand, forcing change in strategy

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COVID-19 test­ing sites in Den­ver are so swamped that pub­lic health offi­cials are ask­ing peo­ple who can safe­ly delay get­ting test­ed to do so.

In addi­tion, those who can get a pri­vate test should go that route, leav­ing the city’s four com­mu­ni­ty sites for those with few­er resources, said Cali Zim­mer­man, emer­gency man­age­ment coor­di­na­tor with the Den­ver Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health and Envi­ron­ment.

The mes­sag­ing shift indi­cates just how inun­dat­ed Denver’s pub­lic health offi­cials are with the third coro­n­avirus wave. As Zim­mer­man not­ed, test­ing pro­vides offi­cials with much-need­ed infor­ma­tion about trans­mis­sion rates and com­mu­ni­ty needs.

Cur­rent­ly Denver’s pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is between 12% and 15% — two to three times worse than it was just a few weeks ago Zim­mer­man said.

Statewide, Col­orado received a record 55,000 test results Thurs­day, said Sarah Tuneberg, spe­cial COVID-19 advis­er for the Col­orado Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health and Envi­ron­ment.

“Real­ly, since the week of Sept. 13 we’ve seen a con­sis­tent demand increase of about 25% every week,” Tuneberg said.

She said there’s some evi­dence that the increased demand could part­ly be com­ing from peo­ple who hope to trav­el for the Thanks­giv­ing hol­i­day, but stressed that tests should not be used to jus­ti­fy a trip.

“Test­ing is a snap­shot, a moment in time,” Tuneberg said. “And you could lit­er­al­ly leave the test­ing site and be exposed in the process.”

The statewide pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate over the past sev­en days sits at around 12.88%„ more than dou­ble the goal of 5%. That means trans­mis­sion of the virus is increas­ing, and that the increase in pos­i­tive results is not just due to increased test­ing.

While oth­er Col­orado coun­ties aren’t yet chang­ing their approach to test­ing as Den­ver is, their capac­i­ty has also been stretched thin.

“Our team is very, very taxed,” said Assis­tant Sum­mit Coun­ty Man­ag­er Sarah Vaine, whose coun­ty has seen a sim­i­lar increase in its per­cent­age of pos­i­tive tests. “We con­tin­ue to add peo­ple, but when you have so many out­breaks it does sort of beg the ques­tion should we just assume every­body has it and stop what we’re doing?”

Vaine and oth­ers say they’re con­cerned that Col­oradans are too fatigued with all the dire about the virus to fol­low nec­es­sary rec­om­men­da­tions like wash­ing hands fre­quent­ly, wear­ing face cov­er­ings, and avoid­ing large groups and hol­i­day trav­el.

“I don’t know how to more clear­ly express to peo­ple that their per­son­al behav­ior, the choic­es they make, have a direct impact on their com­mu­ni­ty, the econ­o­my and the spread of this dead­ly virus,” Vaine said.

State offi­cials announced tighter restric­tions for 20 coun­ties this week — includ­ing Den­ver and much of the metro area — in an attempt to curb trans­mis­sion while also avoid­ing a lock­down. Hos­pi­tals are packed and too many cas­es exist for tra­di­tion­al con­tact trac­ing to effec­tive­ly work.

And yet the trend still appears to be wors­en­ing.

Testing capacity

Offi­cials test about 1,500 peo­ple each day between Denver’s com­mu­ni­ty test­ing sites and the num­ber has been steadi­ly increas­ing, Zim­mer­man said. So far, those sites are able to return most results in about 48 hours and main­tain enough capac­i­ty to han­dle the demand.

But it’s a stretch, and tim­ing is an issue.

For exam­ple, the test­ing site at Paco Sanchez Park had been designed to han­dle between 200 to 400 peo­ple each day, Zim­mer­man said. Now, they’re see­ing about 800 peo­ple dai­ly — and turn­ing some away.

“Just about every sin­gle day, if not mul­ti­ple times a day, we do have to cut off the lines,” Zim­mer­man said.

Com­mu­ni­ty test­ing sites are, first and fore­most, for those with no insur­ance and no pri­ma­ry care physi­cian, Zim­mer­man not­ed.

Also, test­ing is a low­er pri­or­i­ty for those who might have been exposed to the virus but aren’t exhibit­ing symp­toms and have the abil­i­ty to self-iso­late, she said.

Den­ver offi­cials plan to open a new test­ing site soon in the Ruby Hill neigh­bor­hood.

The Tri-Coun­ty Health Depart­ment, which cov­ers Adams, Ara­pa­hoe and Dou­glas coun­ties, is still encour­ag­ing all those who want a test to get one, said Wendy Nad­ing, pro­gram nurse man­ag­er. But it’s still a strug­gle.

“It almost seems like there’s a lim­it­less need for test­ing. Some­how the demand is still out­pac­ing the sup­ply,” Nad­ing said. “No mat­ter how fast we stand up new test­ing, it just gets absorbed.”

Tri-Coun­ty doesn’t con­duct any tests itself. Rather, it directs res­i­dents toward con­tract­ed com­pa­nies per­form­ing com­mu­ni­ty tests, Nad­ing said. But the pub­lic health agency does help coor­di­nate sup­port staff for those sites, which presents a chal­lenge. The num­ber of peo­ple seek­ing tests right now dwarfs what they saw as lit­tle as a month ago.

The site at Water World, north of Den­ver, test­ed 4,109 peo­ple on Mon­day alone, Nad­ing said. One at the Auro­ra Cen­ter for Active adults test­ed 939, and anoth­er at Centennial’s Cen­ter Park test­ed 1,591 that same day.

Com­pa­nies, schools and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions can help by orga­niz­ing their own test­ing if they can afford it, said Dr. Sandy John­son, direc­tor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Denver’s school of glob­al health affairs. Small-scale test­ing with­in such groups could enable quick­er and more effec­tive action should a group mem­ber test pos­i­tive.

Testing still has value

The high demand is mak­ing it hard­er for Col­oradans who need tests to get them.

Fras­er res­i­dent Jeff Harp­er, a free­lancer in tele­vi­sion, need­ed a test ahead of an assign­ment, but no rapid tests were avail­able at urgent care loca­tions for 10 days. Harp­er had to pass on the job.

Sum­mit Coun­ty still has capac­i­ty, Vaine said. Ear­ly in the pan­dem­ic the coun­ty could per­form few­er than 200 tests a day, but now — thanks to state mobile test­ing sites and some private/public part­ner­ships — the coun­ty can test about 1,000 a day, which is high­er than the cur­rent demand.

Despite how wide­spread the virus is, there’s still val­ue in con­tin­u­ing to test, pub­lic health experts say. For one thing, those who test pos­i­tive are alert­ed that they need to quar­an­tine to pre­vent addi­tion­al spread.

Den­ver Pub­lic Health Direc­tor Bob McDon­ald said his team can’t trace indi­vid­ual con­tacts any­more. They can, how­ev­er, tar­get hot spots and out­breaks at busi­ness­es to try to stop broad­er spread that way.

At the state lev­el, Tuneberg said results influ­ence where staff and resources are sent and inform pol­i­cy deci­sions. It’s crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion in the fight against the virus, she said.

Still, test results do lit­tle if Col­oradans don’t lis­ten to the sci­ence and fol­low pub­lic health offi­cials’ most basic rec­om­men­da­tions, the experts agree.

“We are not ready to shut every­thing down,” Vaine said. “But we don’t know how to com­pel peo­ple any more through our mes­sag­ing. The fatigue is real.”

Den­ver Post reporter Jes­si­ca Sea­man con­tributed to this arti­cle. 

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