Behind the scenes of Pueblo’s COVID19 testing site, why these results matter so much

A women is administered a COVID-19 test by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Colorado National Guard at the Colorado State Fairgrounds on March 19, 2020. (PULP Colorado)

Like a scene out of the movie “Outbreak” with medical staff in full protective gear and the National Guard in uniforms with respirators — the Colorado State Fairgrounds on Thursday turned into a hot zone, for only three hours, in the fight against the Coronavirus.

The Local Picture: There were two goals today at the fairgrounds:

  1. Get people answers if they have COVID19 or some other viral illness.
  2. Get leaders numbers on just how bad the outbreak is in Pueblo. 

Why it matters: Numbers give data. Data drives decisions.

What Happened: It started yesterday at noon when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment alerted Pueblo Health that a mobile unit would test 100 Puebloans on Thursday. 

Behind the scenes:

Pueblo officials have been calling on the state to send its mobile unit to give local leaders raw data to make informed decisions. It’s something many leaders say is frustrating as they are attempting to make policy and safety decisions but so far have been doing so without a clear picture of the COVID-19 spread.

Around lunchtime on Wednesday, when Pueblo Health was alerted, the clock was ticking to get doctors to contact patients and for the patients to contact doctors to fill prescriptions and make appointments. The goal was 100 patients. That number would give state health officials data to extrapolate the spread in Pueblo County.

Before testing even began, Pueblo Health was alerted early in the morning that there was a second positive case, a 47 year-old female. Pueblo Health immediately started an epidemiological investigation of the case — calling her, anyone she may have had contact with and others who might have been exposed.

The security and set-up of the site was relatively routine, Sheriff Kirk Taylor told the media. But a hiccup they didn’t anticipate, according to Taylor, was the paperless nature of prescriptions and just how analog this pop-up testing process is.

The Process: 

A little before 10 am, on Thursday, a line of cars started forming outside the fairgrounds along Mesa Avenue. 

At 10 am, the first cars pulled into the staging areas, screened by teams of Pueblo County Sheriff Deputies and CDPHE professionals along with National Guard medics wearing white protective coveralls, full respirators, and bright orange footwear. 

Patients stayed in their cars and and gave their information to local law enforcement in protective gear, to make sure they are allowed to progress. Then they were moved forward for CDPHE to do a quick check, making sure their prescription was valid.

Individuals were then given oral and nasal swabs and sent home, back into their self-quarantine. 

By 12:30 pm, Pueblo Health says the unit processed 90 tests as the numbers of cars dwindled to zero. 

The mobile testing unit won’t stay in Pueblo. This unit has been activated across the state to give local communities better data.

Waiting for results: Pueblo Health Officials are hoping to get results from the state by Sunday evening or Monday. But as more tests from around Colorado are administered, experts predict there will be longer delays for results going forward.

The Real Delay: Randy Evetts, Pueblo Public Health Director, said that they are operating with information that is 5 to 7 days behind. But he and his team are not waiting to see if the numbers will increase. Evetts said they are making public health decisions as if they have increased.

The big picture: With less than 24 hours to alert probably COVID-19 patients, only 90 tests were performed — under the 100 expected. What isn’t known is if that’s because people couldn’t get a prescription in time or if in Pueblo County there’s not the high demand for testing because local hospitals are performing those tests. But by early next week Randy Evetts will get his prognosis of COVID-19 in Pueblo County.

Personal Note: It was surreal and historic; there’s never been anything like this in modern Pueblo life. Never. In front of the Livestock Pavilion, cars lined-up like cattle waiting patiently to be tested, moved forward, people were swabbed and then they went home to be penned up into self-quarantine. What happened today at the fairgrounds was just weird and hopefully something never to be repeated after this crisis passes.