The popular ski resort that rises above the former mining town draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The air is thin. The population is older than average. The nearest intensive care unit is 66 miles away. As cases began to pop up elsewhere in Colorado, as many as 10,000 skiers a day were still on the mountain, coming in from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. An imported outbreak could be devastating.
So San Miguel County came up with a plan: Understanding that testing for the coronavirus is key to controlling its spread, officials worked with a private company to offer antibody tests to every resident of the county last month — tests that would determine whether someone has ever had the infection and might have defenses to it. The move came with great relief: They would all know whether the global scourge had reached them.
But then, they all had to wait.
Weeks passed without results after most adults in the county gave their blood to COVAXX, a division of United Biomedical Inc., a company owned by two Telluride residents. The holdup: UBI's processing lab is located in Hauppauge, N.Y., 50 miles east of Manhattan on Long Island. Shortly after the completed test kits were shipped east, the lab became an essential cog in the fight against the virus in New York, which remains the deadliest hot spot in the world, with more than 295,000 confirmed cases and 23,033 deaths as of Tuesday — more cases than any foreign country and nearly as many deaths as Spain.
The company’s married co-CEOs, Lou Reese and Mei Mei Hu, realized their ambitious plan to test the entire county was not feasible as the virus took hold in major cities across the country, sidelining first responders and hospital employees who became the company’s highest priority.
“If I had 300 million of the tests and I could test the entire country, I would,” Reese said. “It got to this thing where we started feeling bad; there are thousands of front-line workers in New York who don’t know if they can go back to work because they haven’t taken a reliable antibodies test. So this is a huge percentage of our critical infrastructure, and each of them are helping dozens of people.”
So it wasn’t until last weekend that the residents of San Miguel County got the results, which in many ways were heartening, because out of 4,757 processed tests, 26 came back positive, meaning those people had been exposed to the virus even if they never shown symptoms. There were 70 “borderline” results, and 695 are still pending. The county has locally recorded 19 confirmed cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But that critical lag of three weeks left it unclear whether those 26 people spread the virus further. They know about that point in time, but have little idea what the situation is now.
“That’s been a disappointment for a lot of people, that it’s just been so long trying to get these results back,” says Terry Tice, a 75-year-old retiree who once owned a clothing store in Telluride. “At the same time, I don’t know anybody that’s symptomatic and worried they may have contracted the virus.”
As Colorado began to ease its virus-related restrictions on Monday, what Telluride encountered is indicative of one of the major problems facing the country as it tries to control the pandemic and move to reopen communities nationwide. While testing is viewed as a key component of understanding, tracking and controlling the virus, major delays in obtaining test results can diminish the value of those results. And because the tests are more critically needed in hot spots, it is unclear how long it will take for cities and towns across the country to get tests and get the findings back.
“I’m so proud of what we did in San Miguel County,” Reese said. “It’s amazing. It’s the first county or municipality where everyone was offered blood tests in the world. . . . It’s a historic effort. But there’s so much demand that we really want to make the biggest impact, and the way to do that is hot spot areas, front-line workers, people on the sidelines who can go back to work once they have some level of antibodies.”
Companies like UBI have been swamped with orders from all sorts of entities, public and private, all stating the case for their importance to the collective effort against the virus, Hu said.
“We’ve taken a traditionally non-consumer industry, and now everyone’s an acquirer,” she said.
For the community at the top of Colorado, it was a second testing disappointment — the National Guard had come through San Miguel County weeks before UBI, tested a smaller group of people and took two weeks to process results.
The county had a plan to test residents twice, to understand what the true infection rate was, and how quickly it was spreading across the community. It was part of a larger effort to aid the government’s response. Such tests are crucial for the recovery effort as companies hope to bring employees back to the office, cities and counties work to put first responders back in action, and sports leagues research ways to resume games.
Now that plan is suspended indefinitely.
“When we first started, the plan was to do two rounds of testing 14 to 16 days apart because it takes approximately 10 days for the body to develop antibodies,” said Sharon Grundy, San Miguel County’s medical officer and director of primary care at the Telluride Medical Center. “So you want to catch people if they tested negative in the first round, would they test positive in the second?”
Telluride residents were largely happy to be an experiment for the antibody tests, despite the social media ridicule that some tossed at a remote resort community getting comprehensive testing while communities across the country were lacking adequate testing for health-care workers and ill patients. Though these tests were provided by a local benefactor, it hearkened to other elite communities getting access to testing — such as Fisher Island, near Miami — while many cities have struggled to secure tests.
More than 5,000 people drove to testing sites across the county, which stretches from the ski resort west to the Utah border. In Telluride, officials in hazmat suits directed residents through info-gathering stations, temperature screenings and, ultimately, blood drawing in a school gym.
“We felt we had to be ahead of the curve in being prepared,” said Telluride resident Mark Kozak, 49, a former Alaskan heli-ski guide and current executive director of the Telluride Science Research Center, which was not involved in the testing. “We have people coming in here from all around the world. And then the thought that, if we can do something here and we’re organized enough and enthusiastic enough to be a model for somewhere else, it didn’t feel like a privileged situation. We are privileged here, no doubt, but we felt like we were doing something productive.”
Kozak and his wife have not received their test results, but they are assuming they are clear. They were given a number upon having blood drawn that they were told would correspond to an online database with results. Instructions for the database never came.
Some in the county went from fearing they tested positive to hoping they had, with the idea that they would have built up antibodies and perhaps some level of immunity in the time it took to process the results.
“At this point, it’s like that probably would be a good thing if it was positive,” Kozak said.
Even before the UBI testing, San Miguel County officials were taking aggressive measures to protect the population because of fears of what a respiratory illness could do in the mountain air.
Schools closed on March 13, then ski areas closed after Gov. Jared Polis (D) issued an executive order shuttering the state’s resorts on March 14. Days later, the county shut down all nonessential businesses and issued stay-at-home orders; sitting more than 125 miles from the nearest interstate, authorities placed signs on the mountainous roads leading in, warning nonessential visitors not to proceed, under threat of arrest.
“Over half of the population of the county lives at or above 8,000 feet, and one thing that is lacking at high altitudes is oxygen,” Grundy said. “So if you have a viral illness that can cause severe respiratory inflammation and hypoxia, it is pretty threatening to our health.”
Tice said it all seemed a little extreme, but he understands the rationale behind it.
“The reality is that so many of the people who work in Telluride live other places, and some of the counties around us have had so many more cases than ours,” Tice said. Not to mention all the visitors for winter sports — and those who flock to Telluride in the summer, too. So the tests were viewed as a lifeline. As the days turned into a weeks, they became a major source of anxiety.
“As a society, we learned lessons from this, that labs can get overwhelmed due to the circumstances,” Kozak said. “I don’t see it as a failure. I think that there are going to be other occasions where we have to do something like this. And the confidence that this community now has to mobilize is an asset.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect population for Telluride, Colo. San Miguel County has 8,000 residents and Telluride, the county seat, has 2,200 residents. The article has been updated.