I had the chance to speak with Gunnison County’s director of Health and Human Services, Joni Reynolds, on August 2. We discussed the state of Covid-19 in Gunnison County regarding cases, testing, and vaccination, and how residents can best protect themselves. We then touched briefly on Western’s response to the pandemic.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is presented below.
Brian Wagenaar: Joni, I’m wondering if you can talk to me a bit about how you came to the role you have now?
Joni Reynolds: Public health has been my career. I did my undergraduate and graduate studies in nursing, and community health nursing, and then worked in public health on the Front Range. Later, I worked at the state health department, including several years as the public health director for the state of Colorado. After that, I accepted this position out here in Gunnison. I’ve been here about seven years, and it’s been a delightful change for me.
Brian Wagenaar: You know, I actually haven’t been in Gunnison for a couple months now, but I know that many places in the U.S. are undergoing yet another Covid-19 surge right now, and the last time I traveled to Gunnison back in June, I unfortunately contracted Covid-19.
All that considered, I thought it might be a good idea to check in with a local expert on the Covid situation before students came back to campus.
Joni Reynolds: Both statewide and here in Gunnison we’ve seen a leveling off of cases these last couple weeks. Actually, the last four weeks have been pretty stable. And numbers are slowly declining. Still, we do see positive cases among county residents and visitors alike.
We’ve not seen any severe cases among county residents in this latest surge — we’ve seen some hospitalizations but they primarily have been among visitors or individuals that have high risk and underlying health conditions. So, those have really been the focus of my recommendations.
If you do have underlying health conditions — historical health issues with your lungs, your heart, or your immune system in general — it’s really important to monitor for symptoms. Test early, and test in connection with a healthcare system where you can then access care if you need it — having a provider that can go ahead and prescribe antiviral therapy will help prevent severe complications. It’s best to not wait until you’re sick to make that connection, and to have a plan in place.
BW: Would you recommend that people do at-home testing first? What’s the best way to approach testing within Gunnison County?
JR: So, the county testing that was being done over at the hospital has ended. There’s no free testing there anymore, but we do have test kits available here at the Health and Human Services office, and I’ve been talking to Western leadership about getting some tests over there, too. These test kits that we’ve been supplied do have a telehealth option, so people can get telehealth services in connection with their testing.
There are some other testing options available in the community — all of which do have costs associated with them — either through provider offices or through the hospital or urgent care.
BW: So what do the Covid-19 case numbers look like in recent weeks and months, and how does that compare to Gunnison’s peak?
JR: It’s a challenging question to answer. One of the things that we know is that testing availability and test reporting has really shifted throughout the last two and a half years. Early on, we had virtually no tests in March of 2020, we literally had 100 or 200 tests. Fast forward to 2021, and we had tests readily available.
In December 2021 and January 2022, we saw the highest spike in cases. We would see more than 100 individuals tested daily, and as many as 50 or more testing positive just in our county.
Fast forward to the present, and we now have ubiquitous home test kits. They’re been used routinely, but reporting for those home test kits is estimated at around 5 percent. When I say we have about 10 percent of the cases as we did at the peak, I’m really largely guessing. We do see, on average, a couple dozen positive tests in a week.
Our focus has really been following up with individuals that are in high risk settings — at our long-term care center, at the hospital, in childcare settings, and with older (50+) or younger (under the age of 5) individuals.
BW: From a vaccination standpoint, where does Gunnison County stand?
JR: We have seen that consistently we’ve been at the state average for fully vaccinated individuals (two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or one of Johnson & Johnson)— in the 70 percent range. We have a lower than average vaccination rate for our youngest children across the state, the ones the vaccine was just recently licensed for (6 months to 5 years old).
We’re seeing less than 20 percent of those children vaccinated at this point. But we’ve got vaccine supply available, and we do a clinic every week. We’ve got appointments, and folks can call our office to get a booster or any dose of the vaccines.
We’re also really hopeful that we’ll have an updated booster that will be similar to what we have with the seasonal flu vaccine — to prevent the most prevalent and circulating strain of the virus. They’re working on that at the federal level, and we’re hoping to see those as soon as October.
BW: I wanted to ask you about variants, which have largely dominated the recent Covid news. What variants are you seeing in Gunnison? Is it entirely variants at this point?
JR: We’re seeing basically all variants at this point. We are seeing the BA.5, and that’s the one that is most prevalent both nationwide and in our western region. The variant testing is done through the state lab, and only on samples which are submitted to the state — the ones through the hospital, the urgent care, and the emergency department. The testing itself takes weeks — we don’t get the results until three of four weeks later. So, we don’t know much about the circulating variants in July, but we do know BA.5 is in the community from testing done back in June.
BW: Is there a good way to measure the impact of tourists on the local transmission of Covid?
JR: That’s a good question. There’s a couple things I look at. One is I look at the projected tourist visits to the county (based on 2020 and 2021 travel data), and where they’re traveling from. I look at that to see if we are seeing visitors from Colorado or around the country that have higher case numbers, similar case loads, or lower ones. It’s really been a mix bag this summer. We do see visitors test positive on a regular basis, and some have to make a visit to either urgent care or to the hospital. That’s fairly consistent.
BW: There’s been this narrative in the media that BA.5 is less dangerous. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
JR: I think it’s a fair point. We’ve now had the Covid virus in our world for two and a half years. The healthcare system and human organisms have adapted — we’re better at testing, and we’re better at managing individuals that are infected with the virus. We also know who is at higher risk for complications — and those individuals will be treated accordingly.
Humans have also built immune responses such that the BA.5 subvariant is not able to cause as many severe cases. That’s due to immunity that’s been acquired through vaccinations or through disease exposure.
We’ve also seen the healthcare system’s capacity become much higher than it was two and a half years ago. We’re averaging statewide about 300 hospitalizations for Covid at any given time. At the peak, that number was around 1,800. Looking for hospital beds has not been as difficult recently.
BW: Did Gunnison ever come close to approaching our healthcare infrastructure limits?
JR: Early on, and throughout that first year, it was a balancing act. Of course, we don’t have an intensive care unit at our local hospital but we have some pretty extraordinary providers that were treating critically ill individuals. What we were balancing then, really, is transfers — and having the ability to transfer patients to other hospitals. At some point, the transfers were delayed and patients had to be cared for here.
Transporting a patient to the Front Range or to southern Colorado essentially takes that ambulance out of service for the rest of the day. But our hospital itself never wavered in its ability to accept and to manage patients, despite some of the patients getting transferred to a higher level of care.
BW: With regards to the BA.5 variants, are there any new health guidelines we should be following? What do people need to know?
JR: It is largely about the basics that our moms taught us — washing our hands and making sure that we monitor our own hygiene with regards to coughing and sneezing in public and enclosed spaces.
Also, it’s important to monitor yourself for symptoms, and avoid being around others when you are exhibiting symptoms. These are really not new or different recommendations, but there is some recent guidance coming from the CDC about high transmission areas — that folks in those areas should consider wearing masks in public again. However, Gunnison County does not currently have high rates of transmission.
I still see, on occasion, folks in Gunnison wearing masks and I think it’s really wise to continue supporting mask availability and have individuals be able to use masks depending on their personal situations to protect themselves.
BW: What are the conversations like between your department and Western around the university beginning the fall semester within the next month?
JR: I have been in continuous conversation with Western leadership — that conversation has been ongoing around the Covid-19 situation and landscape — testing, treatments, and cases both locally and across the state. We haven’t had any discussions about closures at all.
BW: Is there anything else you’d like to leave me with?
JR: One thing I would say is that I’ve been impressed with the entire Western campus, the student body, and the staff and faculty for their continued vigilance and support of the broader community — both on and off campus, trying to manage what was sometimes unmanageable. I have applauded those efforts repeatedly.