Public entities keeping up precautions as Montrose County COVID cases surge

Montrose Regional Health continues working with Montrose County and other partners to care for COVID patients and other patients. The hospital and other entities are keeping a close eye on rising cases and say they are prepared to ramp up responses when necessary. (Montrose Daily Press/file photo)

With COVID-19 cases soaring in Montrose County, some entities have begun reimplementing remote work and other policies from 2020. Many, however, are maintaining current requirements and — for now — avoiding mask mandates, as they monitor the situation.

“We’re looking at the number of cases taking place in our community,” Delta-Montrose Electric Association’s board president Kyle Martinez said Thursday, Nov. 4, a day after DMEA and its internet subsidiary Elevate Fiber closed their offices to foot traffic through Nov. 29. Staff members who can perform their jobs remotely are now doing so.

“We understand what we do in providing power and internet and it is critical to the community that we are able to do that. We are just trying to be proactive and make sure to keep our workforce safe so we are able to do that,” Martinez said.

DMEA board meetings have reverted to virtual meetings and will remain remote until at least after the December meeting.

Senior management made the decision for DMEA facilities, which the board backed. What the cooperative wants is to avoid staff infections that would affect service levels, CEO Alyssa Clemsen Roberts said.

Montrose County and the City of Montrose are maintaining their existing precautions and taking cues from the state of Colorado, which so far has not reimplemented previous mask mandates.

“We are not currently considering a local mask mandate or imposing business restrictions,” Montrose County Public Health Director Jim Austin said.

“Instead, our focus is on protecting the capacity of our healthcare system, which has been the state priority from the beginning.”

Capacity is stretched and such cooperation is vital, Montrose Regional Health CEO Jeff Mengenhausen said on Thursday. “We’re still really full. This (past) weekend, we had the most ever. But we are seeing a little bit of a dip today.”

The hospital, the county and the city work with other healthcare partners to be able to move lower-acuity patients out of the hospital and into settings such as assisted living.

Further, Montrose Regional and Montrose County are working to increase staffing capacity and space for monoclonal antibody infusions, Mengenhausen said. The treatment infuses antibodies into COVID patients to help reduce severity and to fight the virus — with the idea of keeping them out of the hospital, he explained.

“We were definitely hitting capacity. We are doing a lot and running out of space, and a little bit of staffing,” said Mengenhausen, who added that Montrose Regional Health has been doing 20 or so infusions a week.

“We are in regular communication with those partners on efforts such as actively promoting monoclonal antibody administration, which can help reduce the need for patient hospitalization,” Austin said.

“We have been in steady contact with the hospital and will continue to be,” Montrose County Manager Jon Waschbusch said. He said he two entities have recently discussed how to support and add staff, as well as additional space.

“Those conversations are sort of fresh at this point. That’s where we’re at. We’re continuing to discuss how best to support them and meet those immediate needs.”

Discussions also include working with long-term care facilities and have entailed such strategies as a county-sponsored hiring fair, or using federal relief funding for critical care worker hiring bonuses.

“This is the county, hospital, long-term care — everyone all together,” Waschbusch said.

Mengenhausen said the hospital has by now lost about 15 people since state vaccine mandates for workers went into effect. He said the hospital is doing OK in terms of staffing and has sufficient equipment at this time.

“We have a lot of partners. We’re not running out of vents (ventilators), CPAPs. We’re not rationing care from that standpoint. … We’re not to that point. We are still triaging patients so that everyone can get seen,” Mengenhausen said. “We’re busy, but it’s not hindering quality or safety of care.”

The hospital in late October reported record patient volume. Most of its ICU beds were full, consistent with the situation statewide, and it had to transfer one patient as far away as Kansas.

Transfer needs continue at MRH and elsewhere. Mengenhausen said that the hospital continues making a lot of transfers and, through partnerships, takes transfers when it can.

For example, Gunnison’s hospital, which has no ICU beds, can transfer patients to Montrose if there is availability. In turn, Montrose can transfer lower-acuity patients to Gunnison, freeing up those beds here.

The Montrose hospital can ramp up or down as conditions demand.

“With our physicians and caregiver team we have in place, our leaders and incident command, we can flex up and flex down. We haven’t had to pull those levers yet, but they are there and they are planned for, so if we do hit that critical, critical state, we have a plan,” Mengenhausen said.

He offered a word of caution: “Things are changing every day.”

Going forward

Although Gov. Jared Polis previously issued and then extended mask-mandate orders, none were on the horizon Thursday, according to the Colorado State Joint Information Center. Local public health entities can implement restrictions they deem appropriate to slow the spread of COVID, the JIC’s information said. The JIC also said the best protection right now is vaccination.

The City of Montrose encourages people to wear a mask while at city properties if they feel as though they need to, but has not implemented a mask requirement or closed facilities to in-person visit. It has stepped up cleaning practices and added more disinfecting of work stations between uses.

City council continues to offer hybrid meetings — in-person and Zoom options, public information officer William Woody said.

On the county side, Waschbusch said there’s been no discussion of broadly closing public-facing services.

Mask-use is still a requirement within buildings at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area, which as federal properties, follow federal mandates.

“At all visitor centers, we require masks in the building,” Superintendent Deanna Greco said.

The school district considers any mitigation strategy to keep schools safe “on the table,” but is not at present contemplating a universal mask mandate, Matt Jenkins, public information officer, said.

“Montrose County School District is closely tracking our COVID data on a weekly, daily, and hourly basis,” Superintendent Carrie Stephenson said, in a statement Jenkins shared.

“We can confidently pinpoint our current rate of viral prevalence and COVID positivity with better accuracy than any other school district in Colorado. Because we continue to implement layered mitigation strategies (such as quarantining unvaccinated exposed individuals, providing access to molecular PCR tests three days a week, participating in routine rapid screening testing, and encouraging students aged five or older to pursue inoculation) we are better able to keep classrooms safe on all our campuses.”

Like the hospital, local governments and schools, DMEA has a vested interest in taking steps to cut COVID. If the infection were to take too many staffers off the job, it would impair the ability to provide electricity and internet.

“We know we provide critical service,” Clemsen Roberts said. “I know the county numbers are pretty high for the state. We’re just trying to be careful. I want everyone to go home healthy and safe every night.”

Montrose Daily Press Staff Writer Anna Lynn Winfrey contributed to this report.

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

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

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