Early exposure to at-risk people helped fuel COVID-19 in El Paso County, health experts say


COLORADO SPRINGS – How the deadly virus first came into El Paso County remains a mystery to El Paso County Public Health officials. They know almost precisely how it traveled since that point, but the first person to die from the disease didn’t have travel history outside of the county, meaning she was infected while in the Pikes Peak region.

“Our first person that died is as much of a victim of this as any of the others. I wanted to make that clear, that this is no one’s fault in this situation,” said Dr. Leon Kelly, one of the leading voices from the El Paso County Department of Public Health and Environment.

Kelly briefed El Paso County commissioners on the latest steps the department is taking, how COVID-19 spread in the community, and how the department has aimed at tracking it.

He said the first fatality was an example of how that system works well, particularly with the help of the woman’s family.

“Even though they were dealing with the tragic loss of a loved one, their priority was working with our epidemiologist operation folks to identify who she had contact with and who they had contact with,” Kelly said.

The one case meant the department had to track down around 150 people who played in the same card tournament as the patient did at the Colorado Springs Bridge Center. That search, Kelly says, led to 10-15 people reporting consistent symptoms of COVID-19. One of those people had gone to a choir practice where another 100 at-risk people needed to be told to look out for symptoms. In all, three deaths were tracked to that web and around 300 people contacted the health department.

“They were immensely helpful and critical in our response,” Kelly said. “Throughout this, every single individual was cooperative and helpful and only concerned about protecting their fellow citizens.”

These types of infection-tracking practices are becoming more difficult for the department to keep up, Kelly said, but they will keep practicing for now.

Kelly says, the department is comfortable, given the circumstances, of where the county’s caseload sits as the virus is still in the acceleration stage of spreading.

“This is going to be long term,” said Director of EPCPH Susan Wheelan. “There are a few phases of a pandemic and we are in the first phase of the COVID response.”

While, at the time of this posting, El Paso County had the most deaths of any state in Colorado, Kelly points out, the number of both cases and deaths per 100,000 people are below the state’s average.

“We can see that even with our best efforts, all it really takes is one person, it takes one event that someone is sick at or contagious to go to which can result in a massive, quick spread of that virus that will, in large parts, derail the successes that you’ve had up to that point,” he said.

Dr. Kelly said the trend is in the right direction. That, for example, the number of days it takes for cases is increasing, from less than every two days now to around five.

Because of the time it takes for symptoms to show and tests to be confirmed, he says the data is delayed and we likely won’t see the effects from Governor Polis’s stay-at-home order for another week or so but believes decisions like that are what will help best.

“Everything that we’re asking our community to do and [the Commissioners] to support us in, we have done before and it’s worked before and we know it has,” Kelly said.

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