What regions pose biggest COVID-19 threat to Southwest Colorado?

New technology allows health officials to identify where visitors are coming from
durango downtown

Image from Durango Herald file

Through new technology, local health experts are able to better pinpoint what outside regions pose the biggest risk to Southwest Colorado for COVID-19, and the results boil down to two of Durango’s biggest tourist pipelines.

Brian Devine with San Juan Basin Public Health said several new software applications have been developed by the state of Colorado since the novel coronavirus broke out earlier this year to help local health agencies in data analysis for public health decision-making.

One application, called “DOMO,” has the ability to tell local health officials the home base of active cellphones in their community. Then, the software weighs in the current state of the pandemic in that visitor’s home region.

The application creates a report to help show local health officials what visitors pose the highest risk of infection to local populations, Devine said.

In La Plata County, for instance, the highest exposure risk comes from visitors from the state of Texas. The second highest risk is from Maricopa County, Arizona. The third highest risk is exposure from resident to resident. And the fourth highest risk is people from San Juan County, New Mexico.

All cellphone data is aggregate and does not include personal information.

“Our residents did an excellent job flattening the curve,” Devine said. “But for the people in other states with higher case rates, who may now be going on vacation, we need to do a better job communicating (health orders aimed at reducing the virus’ spread).”

Since the outbreak swept across the U.S. earlier this year, La Plata County’s case count had remained relatively low.

But in the past few weeks, as regulations aimed at slowing the virus’ spread were relaxed, and more tourists started vacationing in the region, positive cases have steadily climbed.

La Plata and Archuleta counties went from 106 cases on June 25 to 218 cases as of Sunday.

The rise in cases also prompted health agencies to start tracking nonresidents who test positive here in Southwest Colorado. As of Sunday, 16 nonresidents have tested positive in La Plata County, and 29 people in Archuleta County.

“We’re headed in the wrong direction, and it’s creating too much of a demand on our health resources,” Devine said.

Recently, Mercy Regional Medical Center announced it had to reduce the number of tests it could offer because of such high demand, forcing other centers to offer testing to only “high priority” patients.

Many of Durango’s main tourist draws are either closed or significantly altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still, the region is seeing many visitors who want to escape cities and enjoy the outdoors, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District.

For most of the month of July, for instance, hotels in Durango were reporting a 75% occupancy rate, down only about 10% from the same time last year. And that’s not taking into account all the area’s campgrounds and RV parks, Walsworth said.

Devine said recent data from DOMO showed 55% of cellphone activity in both La Plata and Archuleta counties came from nonresidents.

“A lot of people aren’t flying,” Walsworth said. “They’re driving to places, wanting to be more outdoors.”

Southwest Colorado’s economy is highly dependent on tourism, Walsworth said. A study a few years ago found about half the purchases in La Plata County over the course of the year were made by nonresidents.

Theresa Blake Graven, communications director for Visit Durango, said the agency has stopped all digital ads in hots pots like Texas, Arizona and California.

“In May and early June, we were feeling good about actively promoting visitation,” she said. “But by the July 4 weekend, with cases spiking … we made the tough decision to pause digital campaigns promoting this summer.”

Graven said ads enticing people to come to Durango are still being directed at Colorado residents, especially along the Front Range.

And even though Visit Durango is not targeting places like Texas or Arizona, people from those states are still finding the region. She said National Park visitation is up 30%, and a recent count at the popular Ice Lakes Trail near Silverton saw 300 cars at the trailhead.

“We’re working hard to intercept them and explain (local health regulations),” Graven said. “For the first time ever, we’re running ads in our own community on how to be a responsible traveler.”

Devine said DOMO’s data isn’t a definitive portrayal of all the risks to the community, but it is a useful tool and exercise that shows where infections may be coming from. And, he said it helps the local health department in setting regulations to slow the virus’ spread.

Because health officials know a major risk of infection to residents in Southwest Colorado is people visiting from outside the area, local agencies have asked Gov. Jared Polis for a new COVID-19 tracking model specific to Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners, Devine said.

“With our situation down here, we’re so connected to certain disease hot spots,” he said. “And we think the statewide model is not detailed enough.”

Written by Jonathan Romeo at The Durango Herald.

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