By Pam Zubeck
As the numbers of Coloradans infected with COVID-19 climb, El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly disputes that county residents aren’t doing enough to stem coronavirus here. Speaking to the Board of County Commissioners on March 31, Kelly, who has taken up residence with El Paso County Public Health for the time being, said at least four of the county’s 11 deaths can be directly tied to a bridge tournament that claimed the county’s first victim.
A sophisticated and labor-intensive effort by employees of Public Health and the Coroner’s office tracked those who came into contact during the tournament, held from Feb. 27 to March 3. Kelly noted the first victim’s family and the tournament organizer cooperated fully with that effort. He also noted that the only guidance in place at that time was to wash your hands and cover your cough.
“We can’t blame them for not following orders that were not yet in place,” he said.
The first victim in El Paso County died the second week of March, and the governor’s shelter-in-place order was imposed March 25. “What is driving our high rate is our first cluster of cases was in an at-risk population,” Kelly said. “This is a 12-round title bout. At the opening bell we got punched in the mouth a little bit.”
Kelly said the first victim had no travel history, so she did not bring the virus into the community. In fact, Kelly and his crew have been unable to identify the genesis of that outbreak, despite their elaborate efforts, which involved trying to identify all 150 people she had contact with during the multi-day tournament.
Public Health notified the public the following afternoon and ultimately identified 10 to 15 others who were ill or symptomatic of the virus from within the bridge circle.
“We discovered one of those went to a choir practice that involved more than 100 other people,” he said. “It became clear we were working with a large portion of at-risk people.”
County employees made more than 300 contacts, he said, adding, “There were untold lives that were undoubtedly saved.”
Kelly noted that El Paso County’s numbers seem high, but it’s the most populous county in the state, which he said explains part of the issue, noting that those numbers shouldn’t be used “inappropriately to suggest we’re not following the rules.”
That comment was in reference to Gov. Jared Polis’ brief remark on March 30 that El Paso County residents weren’t sufficiently taking his order to heart, which drew a rebuke from Mayor John Suthers, according to media reports.
Kelly also told commissioners, “We are having success locally. We are very proud of the effort the local community has made.”
But he also acknowledged that officials aren’t testing everyone, so “there’s going to be people you don’t know are positive.” Test kits in Colorado are prioritized for those who are hospitalized, as well as health care providers and first responders, not the general populace or even those who show symptoms.
County health workers continue to trace the contacts an infected person has had, which typically leads to at least 10 other people, Kelly said.
The coroner also suggested that further restrictive orders aren’t necessary.
“We want to get compliance with people coming to the decision on their own, as opposed to more drastic measures that are infringing on people,” he said. “We do not believe that our local number of deaths is being driven by failure on anyone’s part here.”
He predicted that fatality numbers will grow and said a third of older victims wind up in the hospital. A larger portion of positive cases in El Paso County are elderly, which is why 25 percent of those testing positive in the county have been hospitalized, compared to only 15 percent statewide.
“It’s not necessarily how many people get it,” he said. “It’s who gets it.”
“We’re still in acceleration phase,” Kelly said. “Overall, we really like where we are and we want to continue to encourage people to buy in on the things we’re trying to do.”
He said within days the community will open a shelter for homeless people who have tested positive. Mayor John Suthers said last week city officials abandoned the idea of using a warehouse near the Springs Rescue Mission or City Auditorium and instead had focused on the Union Printers Home as a potential site. The home recently closed as a nursing facility following the death of a resident unrelated to coronavirus.
Kelly forecast that easing restrictions won’t come until a more thorough testing and isolation program is in place to allow public health workers to “put out spot fires” or flareups of the disease.
County Commission Chairman Mark Waller praised the presentation, saying he hopes people understand why the orders have been imposed.
Meantime, on March 31, based on data through March 30, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported a 35 percent jump in COVID-19-related deaths from the day before, to 69 (13 in El Paso County). The number of cases statewide increased by 13 percent to 2,966, while El Paso County’s number of cases leaped by 18 percent to 286, compared to the day before.
Outbreaks made a nearly 50 percent gain in one day, from 11 on March 29 to 16 on March 30.
In other news:
• Residents in El Paso and Teller counties can connect with information and resources for COVID-19 by calling 719-575-8888. The call center is open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m on weekends.
• Blood donations are needed. Interested? Call 1-877-25-VITAL or visit vitalant.org to pre-screen and schedule an appointment to donate blood. The Vitalant donation center is located at 3670 Austin Bluffs Pkwy.
• The Salvation Army, COSILoveYou, Pikes Peak United Way and Care and Share Food Bank have joined forces to create a food box delivery program for seniors 60 and older who don’t have transportation. Care and Share will provide the food, and all four organizations will provide transportation and volunteers. “We realized that vulnerable seniors are going hungry, and our goal is to provide groceries for them during the month of April,” The Salvation Army said in a news release.
To get a food box, call Pikes Peak United Way at 2-1-1. Food will be delivered within 48 hours. The box will be brought to your door by a volunteer who will ring the doorbell. To help support this program, call to volunteer or send support: Care and Share, 719-528-1247, careandshare.org; The Salvation Army, 719-636-3891, TSACS.org; Pikes Peak United Way, 719-632-1543, ppunitedway.org, and COSILoveYou, 719-428-5988, cosiloveyou.com.
• The Pikes Peak Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund announced March 31 it had awarded 22 grants totaling $429,000 since March 20, but it’s received requests for more than $3 million. The grants prioritize immediate human needs such as food, shelter, safety and health care to nonprofits serving the most vulnerable populations.
Grants have been given in El Paso County to Colorado Springs Food Rescue, Early Connections Learning Centers, Harrison School District 2, Kingdom Builders, Lutheran Family Services, Mercy’s Gate, Mt. Carmel Veteran Services Center, Open Bible Medical Clinic and Pharmacy, Project Angel Heart, Springs Rescue Mission, TESSA, The Salvation Army, Tri-Lakes Cares, Westside Cares, Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado, Family Promise, Fountain Valley Senior Center, Silver Key Senior Services and Status: Code 4.
In Teller: Community of Caring Foundation/Aspen Mine Center, Community Partnership Family Resource Center and Teller Senior Coalition
As of March 27, the fund had raised more than $580,000 for El Paso and Teller counties. To donate, go to PPCF.org.
• The Rocky Mountain Vibes has introduced “Toasty’s Takeout,” to offer hardcore baseball fans stadium food to pickup. Starting April 1, fans can order various ballpark foods from 4:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. Bonus: some meals come with rolls of toilet paper.