Board of Health declares local epidemic; county buildings closed

Montrose Regional Airport’s terminal, shown last month, as passengers queue at a ticket counter. The airport remained open Monday, as the county largely closed other public buildings to reduce risk of COVID-19. An “aggressive” sanitation plan is in place there and traffic is expected to drop significantly by the end of the week.

The Montrose County Board of Health on Monday approved a declaration of local epidemic, and the Montrose County commissioners are expected to formally ratify their declaration of an emergency on Wednesday, in response to the spread of coronavirus-19, or COVID-19. In Colorado, positive cases stood at 160 as of Monday evening, although none were in Montrose County.

“We have counties to the north of us, cases in Gunnison. Montrose is a pass-through area. It is crucial to be safe and let the public know we’re looking out for their best interests,” Commissioner Keith Caddy said, after the Monday Board of Health action.

“We’ve been working on these plans for a couple of weeks. We’re in good shape there,” Montrose County Manager Ken Norris said, prior to the meeting. “We’re taking everything very seriously. … It will be a different experience for a while. We’ve never run into a situation like this. … It’s just going to take a lot of extra work.”

What does it mean?

Through the declaration, all county buildings were immediately closed to the public, with the exception of Montrose Regional Airport and the Justice Center.

The closure also pertains to all events at the Montrose County Fairgrounds and Event Center, which are cancelled until further notice.

The county commissioners’ Wednesday meeting will take place in the board room and is open to the public; however, people are strongly encouraged to watch it remotely at montrosecounty.net.

No positive tests for COVID-19 had been reported in Montrose County as of Monday morning, public health officials said. County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Lisa Gallegos said 10 tests had been administered locally.

“We have been informed that the state lab is backlogged, we we’re not getting them (results) back as fast,” she said. “The biggest question has been, ‘how do I get tested?’”

People exhibiting symptoms of the respiratory virus — fever, cough, and most significantly, shortness of breath — need to contact their health care provider or public health for an assessment and referral for testing, if a test is deemed necessary. Tests are only being given to those whose providers have determined they need one.

“People are getting confused by that,” Gallegos told the commissioners, who convened as the Board of Health Monday. She was due to discuss placement of an outdoor testing site at the PIC Place later Monday. Again, this would be for people who have been referred for such testing and not a drop-in location for tests.

County Public Health Director Jim Austin said his department is using the consistent messaging and guidance provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Montrose County provides regularly updated information from these sources at montrosecounty.net. (Click the button on the top left of the screen, “COVID-19.”)

Additionally, public health is using a “triage document” that provides guidance as to the types of questions to ask patients who call or visit their providers, Austin said.

He reiterated the CDC’s recommendation Monday: that people cancel any mass gathering of more than 50 people, and to keep a safe distance of about 6 feet between individuals (social distancing).

“We’ve been in constant contact with partners at state health, our regional partners,” Austin said. “I was quite encouraged by the awareness and the fact that people were taking this seriously.”

The county is maintaining its core functions and will remain available to the citizenry by phone or online. It is also prepared to accommodate a work from home situation for employees, through secure access to the county network, Deputy County Manager Jon Waschbusch said.

“Utilize your normal county contacts, normal emails and phone numbers. We are going to continue to do business, just in a different way than we normally do,” he said.

It is better to proactively keep the workforce and essential operations going while everyone is healthy and there are options, he also said.

“We don’t want to continue to operate and put whole work units at risk. We’re prepared. I’m glad we prepared,” Waschbusch said.

Montrose Regional Airport remains open. The airport operates under Federal Aviation Administration rules and the FAA had not as of Monday ordered a shutdown.

Locally, flights are continuing as ski resorts close due to the virus, as well as the time of year. Caddy said the county anticipates traffic will begin dropping significantly by Sunday.

“We are continuing with aggressive sanitation and cleaning of the terminal,” he said, praising custodial staff and later saying Delta Airlines is also assisting. “We’re keeping at it. Again, the volume of passengers should be decreasing significantly,” Caddy said.

County departments such as the Clerk and Recorder and Montrose County Sheriff’s offices are headed by elected officials, who have latitude to set additional policies or building hours.

The upcoming municipal election and the fact that 2020 is a General Election year “is obviously very difficult timing” for the clerk’s office, Caddy said, but every county in the state is dealing with a similar situation. (See info box for clerk and recorder information.)

The Veterans Service Office is available by phone for veterans; there are no express concerns, but the county wants to be sure it is able to assist veterans, Veterans Service Officer Sheldon Smith said.

“It’s our job to keep the community safe,” Montrose County Commissioner Sue Hansen said.

“I think a little common sense goes a long way with this,” Caddy said, reiterating the go-to advice: wash hands frequently and thoroughly, practice social distancing, stay home if ill and don’t go out if it is not necessary.

“We’re doing this out of an abundance of caution,” Norris said. “Each department has a plan, and each elected official. We’re very well organized going into it. We’ve developed a strong team going into it.”

The county has worked with local and regional partners, including Montrose Fire Protection District, the City of Montrose, Mesa County, and other organizations. (The fire district has also implemented its own emergency declaration; see related.)

“The county is in good shape. The biggest thing is, don’t panic. Be calm,” Commissioner Roger Rash said.

State Sen. Don Coram echoed Rash, urging people to remain calm and vigilant. He said he had asked the state health department about lining up more test kits for Montrose County. If the county requests more, state health can have them expedited, Coram said.

“I feel good about what’s going on,” he said of the response in Montrose and the state. “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”

More information

• Montrose County can be reached at 970-249-7755 and at montrosecounty.net/8/County-Offices. Also, find a link to COVID-19 information at the top left of the county’s website.

• Montrose County Clerk and Recorder access:

People conducting business with the clerk and recorder’s office have several online options.

For election results or voter registration, visit govotecolorado.org; call 970-252-3360, extension 3, or email elections@montrosecounty.net.

For public records searches, visit http://landmarkweb.montrosecounty.net.

For marriage licenses, obtain an application at http://landmarkweb.montrosecounty.net/marriagekiosk.

The phone number for the recording office is 970-252-3362, ext. 2, or email recording@montrosecounty.net.

Many transactions relating to motor vehicle licensing and registration can be accomplished at mydmv.colorado.gov.

Other processes can be done over the phone by calling a technician at 970-252-3362, ext. 1.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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