Virus Outbreak Colorado (copy)

Colorado National Guard medical personnel suit up to perform coronavirus tests on motorists at a drive-through testing site outside the Denver Coliseum on Saturday in Denver. 

El Paso County is leading the state with 11 reported coronavirus deaths, but county public health officials say that shouldn't be a surprise due to the county's large population and because many elderly players in a bridge tournament were exposed to the virus early on. 

"This is a 12-round title battle. ... At the opening bell we got punched in the mouth," said Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director for the El Paso County Public health. 

The total number of deaths in El Paso County from the coronavirus will be driven, in part, by how many elderly and at-risk patients contract the illness, he said. But the number is also a function of county's population of more than 700,000, he said.

"We should be leading in the number of deaths, that is not a statistical surprise," he said. 

If the community can limit exposure among residents over age 60, it could reduce the need for hospitalizations and see fewer deaths, Kelly said. 

"It’s not necessarily how many people get it, it’s who get’s it," he said. 

El Paso County's number of deaths so far is in part due to the first outbreak being connected to a bridge tournament played over several days. A woman with the virus may have had contact with 150 people at the tournament, Kelly said. Another bridge player who was exposed  to the virus attended a choir practice where about 100 additional people may have been exposed, he said. 

The woman who attended the bridge tournament died of the virus and three other people with links to the event have also died, Kelly said. 

County epidemiologists traced the contacts from that tournament and warned 300 people about their exposure, he said. "There were untold lives that were undoubtedly saved," Kelly said.

The epidemiologists were not able to confirm how the woman was exposed to the virus. But she did not bring it into the community from elsewhere, Kelly said. 

Epidemiologists are still contacting residents to warn them about their exposure to someone who tests positive for the virus and advise them to isolate themselves, he said.

The effort is a labor- and time-intensive strategy, but it's the best way to fight the virus, Kelly said. The health department does not plan to stop contacting people about their exposure, but as the virus continues to spread those efforts are likely to become more focused on high-risk groups, such as the elderly, Kelly said. 

The county is also working with 15 long-term care facilities that may have residents or workers with coronavirus to help slow the spread, Kelly said. At least two facilities in El Paso County, including Laurel Manor Care Center have had outbreaks, state health officials said. 

El Paso County Public Health also is working closely with the 15 long-term facilities to advise them and provide them with personal protective equipment for employees, Kelly said. 

He cautioned that the county's coronavirus data that reflects 245 confirmed cases as of Monday is  not a true picture of the spread of the virus right now, noting the data is about two weeks behind and has been hampered by a lack of tests, he said. 

The spread of the virus is still accelerating in El Paso County and it is difficult to say when the the number of cases in the county might peak, Kelly said. If the county does a good job of social distancing, the peak may not be obvious, he said. 

It is also unknown if warm weather will bring some relief from the coronavirus in the same way the flu doesn't circulate as much in the summer. However, in other parts of the world the virus has still spread in warm weather, he said. 

If people go back to regular activity too soon, the virus could peak twice, Kelly said, encouraging continued participation in social distancing orders.

"The way we are going to win is by being consistent and measured and fight the plan," he said. "The second you deviate from the plan, that’s when you get knocked out."

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 636-0293.

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