El Paso County is ready to start reopening the economy, while still working to protect those most vulnerable, Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director of El Paso County Public Health, said Thursday.
After shutting down businesses in March and keeping people home through April, the county has effectively "flattened the curve," making the transition feasible, he said at a Board of County Commissioners meeting.
“We could open businesses tomorrow — open them all — it does not matter if people are too scared to go to those restaurants, too afraid to go to those shops," he said. "Our job is to prove that we are ready. El Paso is ready to go.”
While cases will continue to rise, efforts will focus on keeping the number steady so that spread of the virus remains manageable for health care workers.
“We have to make sure that we are able to handle those increased cases that are going to come inevitably,” Kelly said. “Our goal is to protect the most vulnerable, allowing the rest of us to progress in a controlled, appropriate manner so that we don't let this tiger out the cage. But we have got to move forward.”
Now, a greater focus will be placed on containing the virus in a more strategic way that is less harmful to the economy, he said.
“The virus is still with us and it will continue to stay with us and so we have to be able to live with it and meet it in a way that does not have all of the other negative fallouts that we have experienced in our community and economy, not just in El Paso County and Colorado, but in our country and across the world,” Kelly said.
The first step in the Public Health four-pronged strategy to contain the virus requires sustaining a low amount of COVID-19 cases.
Data shows that since Monday, no new deaths in the county have been reported and, as of Wednesday, about 25 people were hospitalized for the virus, Kelly said.
“We had to prove that we could control this thing. We are at the place that we have done that and we have continued to do that,” he said, attributing the success to social distancing and the stay-at-home order.
Increasing the amount of testing within the community is also vital, he said. In the last two weeks, the public health department has been able to test anyone who is symptomatic.
Health officials now have the resources to test about 1,140 people a day in El Paso County, meeting the “gold standard,” which is about 152 tests per 100,000 residents, said Dr. Robin Johnson, medical director of the Public Health Department.
Investigating the virus and mitigating its spread within the community was severely inhibited when health officials needed to wait seven to 10 days to get results, Johnson said. Now, test results are available within 24 to 48 hours.
“That rapid turnaround is also an essential complement of this testing that we will be tracking and have been tracking with our partners,” Johnson said. Anyone who is showing symptoms of the virus should get tested early, she said.
The health department has also increased its team dedicated to tracking the virus within the community.
Finally, hospitals throughout the county must build capacity to help those who are seriously ill, Kelly said.
“At some point we have to let this virus travel through the community so that we get enough healthy, young people with it, so we can build up that immunity. We cannot huddle in our shelters for the next year and half until that vaccine comes. That is not acceptable,” he said.
Data shows that since a peak in early April, cases have steadily declined. As a result, health care workers have been able to manage the spread, even allowing for some elective surgeries to start back up this week.
“Our hospitals' ability to deal with this is what we are going to use to be our prominent determinant of how we progress through this,” Kelly said. “As of today, and over the past several weeks, we are in excellent shape. Our hospitals are very happy with where they are and appreciative of the efforts we made.”
In late March, El Paso County was placed in the national spotlight as its case fatality rate ranked among the highest in the nation at 5.2% and led the state in deaths.
Now, it is faring well compared to other Colorado counties, including Denver, Arapahoe and Weld counties, where the virus has yet to be contained and stay-at-home orders remain in place.
“Despite having significant population density in our city, we have made efforts from the very beginning that have dramatically changed the trajectory," Kelly said. "El Paso is in a situation, in a position of strength at this point.
The health department is working with local businesses to provide guidance so that they can begin reopening safely, he said. Its goal is to get schools back in session in the fall.
But the “COVID war” isn’t over, he warned, pointing to a potential increase in substance abuse and suicide due to the financial struggles, marital troubles, health problems and grieving loved ones.
Suicides has not increased from this time last year, but Kelly said health officials will continue to monitor it.
The health department will also continue tracking health in communities that struggle with equity as they work to contain the virus, Johnson said. Stable housing, employment opportunities, healthy foods, health care services, quality educations and safe spaces strongly correlate to the health status of a community, she said.
“The pandemic simply amplifies inequities in a vulnerable population and this is due to the population already dealing with stressors, economic challenges and access issues that are intensified during such times as this.”