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Cars line up during drive up testing for COVID-19 in Gunnison on March 20, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado will begin testing health care workers and first responders for the new coronavirus in anticipation of a possible surge in cases, state health officials said Thursday.

“The longer we can protect those people, the stronger our health care system is, the longer it can last, the more capable it is when the surge comes,” said Mike Willis, director of the State Emergency Operations Center.

Initially, the state will be able to test about 5,000 health care workers and first responders on the Western Slope and sites in northern and southern Colorado, Willis said. He expects to have an additional 2,500 test kits available next week.

The state is now dispensing the first 4,500 test kits, which are from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Testing will begin in three locations — through local health departments in Larimer, Mesa and El Paso counties. 

Testing of Heath care workers — which includes home-health aids and nursing home staff — will occur by appointment and on a walk-in basis, the state health department said. The tests are for workers who are showing symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, health officials said.

Each state is receiving some of the swab-testing kits, the number of which is based on population.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.

>> FULL COVERAGE

Willis spoke at a briefing along with Scott Bookman, incident commander for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Earlier in the online press conference, Bookman said the lack of testing capacity generally has “made it more challenging to contain outbreaks throughout our state.”

Both officials stressed that the effectiveness of the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, largely depends on voluntary compliance.

“That’s the big thing here, for all of us to do our part, for us to encourage our neighbors to do their part and not ask law enforcement to do that for us,” Willis said. “The governor made that very clear.”

There are at least 1,400 people who have tested positive for the virus in Colorado or are considered positive cases because they have symptoms of COVID-19 and are a close contact of someone who has the disease. At least 26 have died.

Bookman said it could take several weeks to see impact on the number of coronavirus cases from the stay-at-home order and social distancing. He said the number of reported cases of COVID-19 is likely low because of the lack of testing and a lag in reporting.

“We all do believe there are several more thousand than we have reported at this time,” he said.

The first two cases of COVID-19 in the state were announced on March 5. Polis declared a state of emergency on March 10 in an effort to best respond to the situation.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...