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Coronavirus

San Miguel County suspends, then recommits to its universal coronavirus testing experiment over 3-day span

United Biomedical, which is providing free tests for all residents of Telluride and the surrounding county, says it’s working “around the clock” to deliver results from 4,400 initial tests

Playground equipment sits empty at Telluride Intermediate School on Jan. 9, 2020. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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San Miguel County on Thursday restated its commitment to a first-of-its-kind partnership with a company providing free COVID-19 testing to anyone who lives in Telluride or the surrounding area, reversing an announcement earlier in the week that health officials were suspending the project.

The county on Tuesday said in a now-deleted news release that it was temporarily shutting down testing because the lab of United Biomedical Inc., which is providing the tests, had been “compromised due to virus.” Hours later, United Biomedical said it was not compromised and that its labs were “constantly working around the clock to process results from our friends and neighbors.” 

San Miguel County walked back its suspension Thursday afternoon and apologized for confusion caused by earlier statements.

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“The indication that the lab was compromised was unintentionally misleading and the county apologizes for any confusion it created,” the news release issued Thursday reads. “San Miguel County remains confident in the quality of test results from UBI.”

(Health officials have declined to comment further as they work through containment and testing plans for the county, which on Thursday reported its 11th case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)

San Miguel County and United Biomedical made international news last month with a plan to screen everyone in the county twice with a new blood test. A subsidiary of the company owned by part-time Telluride residents Mei Mei Hu and her husband, Lou Reese, created the test and offered 15,000 to the county free of charge.

Hu and Reese said they would send samples voluntarily provided by the county’s roughly 8,000 residents to United Biomedical labs in California and New York. 

The testing was announced before San Miguel County had any confirmed coronavirus cases among residents. The county was among the first in Colorado to announce a lockdown as it prepared for contagion in the box canyon of Telluride, population 2,500, and other rural corners of the county. 

The promise of testing an entire population of people — whether or not they were showing symptoms of the coronavirus — resonated nationally as a way to more wholly examine the disease’s fatality rates and spread. Sporadic testing of mostly sick people has left many unknowns in the battle to prevent the spread of COVID-19, forcing policymakers to pursue sweeping closures to thwart worst-case scenarios, including the March 14 shutdown of all Colorado ski resorts. 

Mass testing of all 3,000 residents of Vo, Italy, in March allowed the town to isolate people before they showed signs of infection, which effectively eradicated the virus in less than two weeks. The results in Vo highlighted the need for widespread testing, revealing that a significant number of residents who were infected showed no symptoms. 

The same hope for a data-based intervention resonated well beyond Telluride and San Miguel County. The first round of tests processed by United Biomedical involved 645 first responders and health care workers and all tested negative. By the end of March, volunteers had collected 4,285 samples from county residents. Results from 986 tests done at United Biomedical labs on March 26 and 27 showed eight positive results, 23 borderline and 955 negatives. So the first 1,631 test results in the county showed less than 2% were positive or borderline. 

By Monday, the San Miguel County Department of Public Health was waiting on results from more than 4,400 first-round tests it sent to United Biomedical. The county was growing frustrated by unexpected delays in processing and announcing results, which United Medical had said could be delivered in 24 to 48 hours. The department said United Biomedical was reporting industry-wide disruptions due to the pandemic, especially at its New York facility. 

“This is disappointing, but not surprising given the unprecedented times and unpredictable consequences of this pandemic,” Dr. Sharon Grundy, county medical officer said in a news release on Monday.

The next day the county’s board of commissioners announced the health department was delaying the second round of testing due to United Biomedical’s “considerable reduced ability to process the tests due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Grundy, in a statement earlier this week, said the tests results will still have value even though they will be delivered weeks late. Thursday’s statement said the county “is standing by” to resume testing and any delay does not invalidate results.

Telluride as soon from above in September 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“The data will provide us with a better understanding of the prevalence of the virus in our community and how those who were exposed to COVID-19 fared,” she said earlier this week. 

Hu, the CEO of United Biomedical, said her labs are seeing increased demand “in the midst of an unprecedented global public health crisis,” and that she was looking forward to the second round of testing in San Miguel County. 

The unified statement from the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners and United Biomedical said county residents showed up for testing “in larger numbers than we expected and we continue to be inspired by the active participation in mutual efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. We are all in this together.”

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