This article and photo first appeared in the Vail Daily on November 14, 2020.
For months, it’s been all hands on deck as Vail Health has worked to build up its coronavirus testing capacity.
The organization is now completing all of its coronavirus tests in-house, rather than relying on test results from commercial labs and third parties that became backlogged with widespread testing demands during earlier spikes in the pandemic.
That local testing infrastructure and timely test results for people to know if they have the coronavirus or have been exposed to it will be critical as infections are yet again rising in Eagle County, around Colorado, and across most of the country.
The latest spike in infections is occurring as colder weather forces more people indoors, where the virus is more likely to spread, and in the run-up to the holidays and a winter ski season vital to the local economy.
“We know for people to appropriately isolate, those that have COVID-19, they first need to know they have it,” said Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health.
People who know they have the coronavirus or were exposed to someone who has the virus are more likely to quarantine and take appropriate steps to prevent infecting others. That will be crucial to keeping the economy operating, students in schools and ski resorts open.
‘An Entire Organization Mobilization’
When coronavirus infections spiked in March and again in July, before the local testing capacity was in place, testing relied heavily on commercial labs that were quickly overrun by nation-wide testing demands. Some people waited upwards of 10 days for their test results.
With five testing sites in Eagle County, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical can now test as many as 500 patients a day and run all the tests in-house, providing results to people within 48-72 hours. Building that testing capacity has been a huge effort for everyone in the Vail Health system.
“The lab has played an immense role in this, but folks in registration and scheduling have had a huge lift to help schedule people for tests,” Lindley said. “Our entire IT team and HR teams have been working day and night and over the weekends. We have employees throughout the whole organization stepping up to help with this, working as schedulers, working as swabbers to help collect tests or in the lab to help process test paperwork. It really is an entire organization mobilization to pull this off.”
Vail Health is receiving 500 to 600 emails a day from people requesting appointments at its coronavirus testing centers and is averaging more than 250 tests a day during the past week — a total that includes one testing site in Summit County.
Over the last month, Vail Health has hired 18 new employees, has 11 more employees starting over the next two weeks and is trying to fill six additional positions to help with coronavirus testing.
But it’s not yet certain that capacity to run up to 500 coronavirus tests a day in-house will be enough. Lindley said the Vail Health Lab is continuing to build its testing capacity, and hopes to soon be able to process as many as 2,500 to 3,500 tests a day.
“We would hope that 500 a day would be enough, but with how this disease is trending, with the incidence rate increasing every day in this valley and in this state and across the country, we believe we will need more capacity,” Lindley said. “Not only for residents who live here year-round and second-home owners, but also for all our visitors coming to ski this winter.”
The Steepest Spike
Nationally, statewide and locally, coronavirus infections are showing no signs of slowing.
Eagle County is averaging nearly 25 new confirmed infections a day as of Thursday — an average that eclipses the county’s first spike in infections in March and is nearly double the number of infections seen during the spike in July.
Colorado is averaging 4,055 new coronavirus infections a day over the last week and saw 5,689 new infections Thursday.
More people are also being hospitalized in Colorado, with 42% of critical care ventilators in the state in use for coronavirus patients as of Thursday and 15% of all available hospital beds in the state occupied by confirmed or suspected coronavirus patients, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Much of that increase in hospitalizations is occurring in Front Range communities, Lindley said.
Locally, only two patients are currently hospitalized with coronavirus. But Vail Health is also working to expand its capacity for treating coronavirus patients, Lindley said, knowing the need for hospital beds may increase and sending patients to larger Front Range hospitals might not be an option like it was earlier this year.
‘Folks Who Need it the Most’
Coronavirus testing priorities include people who are symptomatic and people who have been put on quarantine because of exposure to someone infected.
“We want to test all those people, no problem,” Lindley said. “But we want to discourage folks from getting tested just because they want to know. That’s not a good use of our resources and we want to save it for folks who need it most.”
Over the last couple weeks, about 22% of coronavirus tests have been requested by people getting tested to travel.
“We want to continue to have that capacity to test folks that need to travel, but we also want to remind people now is not the time to travel,” Lindley said. “The virus is surging at a higher level, hospitalizations are at their highest level in this pandemic. Now’s the time to stay home with your family center to reduce contacts at work, to limit physical contact. It’s time to come together to tamp this down before we roll into the ski season.”
Lindley also stressed the importance of people getting a flu shot if they haven’t already. That’s important to prevent flu hospitalizations and save bed space, but also to reduce confusion with flu, colds and coronavirus circulating.
“We want everyone to get one,” Lindley said of flu shots. “You can get immunized at all of our Colorado Mountain Medical sites. You can also go out to a lot of pharmacies here in the community. Wherever people want to get it, we want them to get it.”
For more information about coronavirus testing, visit http://www.vailhealth.org/covid-19/testing.