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Larimer County Releases Mitigation Plan For Reducing Spread Of COVID-19

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Russell Tate
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United Nations COVID-19 Response Creative Content Hub

The Larimer County Department of Health and Environment has sent a COVID-19 mitigation plan to the state health department. The plan is in response to Colorado health officials alerting the county that their variance, which allowed the county to reopen faster than the state, is at risk of being revoked if coronavirus cases continue to rise.

Tom Gonzales, director of Larimer County Public Health, joined KUNC’s Colorado Edition to discuss the mitigation plan, and other details of the county’s coronavirus response.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Describe the pillars of the mitigation plan. How will the county work to bring the numbers back down?

Tom Gonzales: It’s going to be a unified effort. We’re already meeting with our municipalities, our code enforcement, law enforcement, our chambers, our economic and workforce development center. We have great collaboration here in Larimer, and we have good relationships and that’s showing.

We’ve already got a campaign going called “Keep NoCo Open,” we’ve already got good brochures and a media campaign and we’re working with all of our chambers. And a big hats off to the City of Fort Collins for using some CARES (Act) dollars to pay for much of the graphics on that.

Our idea here is to get that out with one brand, one slogan for our community – and it’s all driven around we need to keep our economy open. And if we lose the variance, that’s a step backwards in our recovery. So it’s a real big effort together; we’re all meeting and strategizing on ways to motivate our community to make sure we’re wearing our face coverings when we’re in buildings and in close contact with other people, and definitely reducing our large gatherings.

According to data Larimer County shared with the state, Hispanic residents are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus (as with other parts of the state). Does the health department have any idea why this is the case?

This is concerning data that we’re seeing in what we call ‘inequities.’ Our Latinx (residents are) almost five times more at risk of contracting COVID-19 versus white. Many of our Latinx are front line workers, they’re more in the areas that are more susceptible to the spread of the virus.

Another thing is just outreach and communication to the Latinx community – so we’re already looking at hiring an outreach specialist for the Latinx community; we’re working with the school districts and the library on their cultural and values group to see what the best ways to get someone within the community to build that trust.

Because what we’re seeing is when we make the call for contact tracing, there is some lack of trust when government calls. And that’s understandable, and we really want to make sure that everyone in our community understands why we’re calling, what we’re using that information for. It’s not to be judgmental, that information is not shared with any other organization – it’s all to do line listing and contact tracing. So we’re going to put some efforts toward that with our Latinx community.

One interesting element of the mitigation plan is to implement ‘wastewater micro-surveillance.’ What does that entail, and how will it help inform the county’s response?

This is really exciting science, and where the fun aspect of it is. What we’re learning is you shed the virus, a person can be shedding the virus, almost a week before they’re actually contagious — through their stool. So there’s processes now with a collection system, and testing with the PCR, that you can identify an uptick in COVID-19 virus within wastewater. This is going to be a collaboration between Colorado State University, the city of Fort Collins, the town of Estes Park, and the health department on setting up these collection devices throughout the university, and in stages within the city of Fort Collins and Estes Park, to start getting some background data on COVID-19.

And then if we see an increase, that could be an early-warning indicator, and then we could be more strategic on testing within a certain spot within the campus, such as a dorm or within the city, maybe a block – and determine if there could be an outbreak before we even see symptoms.

The mitigation plan also includes increased enforcement of face coverings. What will that increased enforcement look like?

It’s really working with our code enforcement departments throughout the county, and we’re getting great support. For example if we get a complaint on a business, wherever in the county, within that jurisdiction the code enforcement team will respond, will make the contact, that initial contact, they'll review to make sure the business understands the requirements, which is posting on the storefront that masks are required before entering, that they have certain steps in place to encourage people to wear masks, etc. And if they don’t, then they’re going to go through that education.

So most of that outreach right there is working, about 90% of our businesses want to comply, it's the one or two businesses that aren’t, that'll get sent to us, and we’ll go through the county attorney process for a notice of violation. But what that’s going to do is really help us on getting out and responding to the businesses.

Just last week, we got over 100 complaints, and our little eight-person team was unable to get to nearly half of those. But when we bring in our code enforcement around Estes Park, Loveland, Berthoud, etc., we can get to all 100, and making sure we’re making those contacts, making sure the business understands the requirements.

Broadly speaking, what else is included in the county’s mitigation plan that we haven’t touched on yet?

Well, I think the biggest piece is really the collaboration efforts and how we’re going to move forward on that, that’s a big piece.

Second is how we’re going to ramp up our contact tracing, hiring some staff and getting more volunteers. When you’re at five to six positive cases a day, that’s not too bad, that usually ends up being for every one positive you get about six to seven close contacts, so for every positive you get about eight to 10 calls. So our team was doing pretty good back in June when we were getting five to six cases per day. Now we’re getting 20 to 30 cases a day, so each of the contact calls goes clear up to 90 to 150 calls, so we need more staff. So we’re hiring more staff, that’s in the plan.

Another key component is our outbreak suppression. When we get a positive case in a business, childcare center, school, activity, we’re working closely with the organization to make sure they understand what needs to be done as far as looking at close contacts, quarantine, isolation, so we’re going to increase our outbreak team and actually have epidemiologists designated to certain components, and certain activities, so they’ll be working closely with them. For example, our school districts, we’ll have assigned epidemiologists and contact tracers with our school districts, so they’ll be working closely with them.

Another key component of the mitigation plan is working closely with Colorado State University. Here in a couple of weeks we’re going to have nearly 20,000 students and faculty coming back to the beautiful campus. So we’re going to be working very closely with their contact tracers — in fact, we’re using the same database on sharing information on contact tracing, which again is very private, but we’ll be working together to make sure that we’re doing proper isolation and quarantining to suppress the spread of the virus, so those are other key elements within the mitigation plan.

This conversation is from KUNC’s Colorado Edition from July 27. You can listen to the full show here.

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