Gov. Polis: More people in southern Colorado should get tested for COVID-19

El Paso, Pueblo counties have higher positivity rates than state average

Jared Polis and Betsy Markey
Gov. Jared Polis and Betsy Markey, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, speak at a briefing on COVID-19 at Pueblo Community College on Sept. 1. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

For the first time, Gov. Jared Polis on Sept. 1 held his briefing on Colorado’s coronavirus response outside of the metro Denver area — at Pueblo Community College in Pueblo.

Polis, a Democrat, participated Tuesday in several events in Pueblo and, 40 miles to the north, Colorado Springs, touting new economic development projects and relief money in the area. But he also had another point to make to southern Coloradans.

“In southern Colorado … we can have better testing numbers,” Polis said at the briefing. He said El Paso and Pueblo counties have higher percentages of positive COVID-19 tests than the rest of the state.

“That’s not necessarily because there are more cases in Pueblo and El Paso County,” Polis said. “It’s because we have less data. Less people are being tested.”

Statewide, the test positivity rate was 2.86% for the week ending Aug. 31, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Around 5,800 people are being tested in Colorado each day.

El Paso County Public Health reports the county’s positivity rate was 3.74% for the week ending Aug. 31. Over the month of August, the average positivity rate was 4.52%.

Sarah Joseph, public information officer for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said Pueblo County’s most recent numbers reflect a 2.3% positivity rate for the week ending Aug. 22. For the week beginning Aug. 23, the positivity rate was 6% — but that number doesn’t reflect the full week of data, which wasn’t available as of Sept. 2, Joseph said.

At the briefing, Polis gave positivity rates for El Paso and Pueblo counties at 4.2% and 4.7%, respectively. It wasn’t immediately clear why those rates were different than those recorded by the county health departments. Representatives from both counties said they weren’t sure what Polis’ numbers represented, though they could have been calculated using a different time frame than the typical seven-day average.

“We’re continually trying to lower it,” Joseph said of Pueblo County’s positivity rate. “We’re encouraging mask wearing in the community, and social distancing, and following the state guidelines and local (guidelines).”

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According to CDPHE, both El Paso and Pueblo counties have a “medium” incidence rate, with between 10 and 50 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people reported for the week ending Aug. 31. To the west and southwest of Pueblo County, respectively, less-populated Custer County and Costilla County have “high” incidence rates, with between 50 and 100 new cases per 100,000 people reported that same week. (Custer County’s population is around 5,000 and Costilla County’s is 3,900, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.)

Notably, while the number of tests per capita is generally considered an important component of effective pandemic response, health experts say it’s less critical than the positivity rate — which should stay below 5% before states and countries reopen businesses, the World Health Organization recommended.

According to Johns Hopkins University, which maintains data on coronavirus cases and tests around the world, “there is no expert consensus on a recommended target for the raw number of tests or even the rate of tests per capita.”

It adds that “despite having the highest rate of tests per capita, the U.S. faces the largest outbreak in the world and new cases continue to trend upwards in many states.”

Meanwhile, low positivity rates generally mean that enough people in a given region are getting tested to ensure health officials can monitor and contain outbreaks.

‘Free, quick and easy’

In recent weeks, the state has expanded community-based testing sites and contracted with new providers to speed up turnaround times.

Despite some early hiccups with the new rollouts, state officials maintain that more Coloradans should take advantage of the opportunity to get tested at these sites if they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or believe they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.

“As we recover, we want to make sure that it’s a statewide effort, which is why we’re focused on southern Colorado today — making sure that folks know and can take advantage of the free, quick available testing,” Polis said at the Sept. 1 briefing. “You get the results within a day or two, they’ll be texted right to you, and you’ll be in and out in 15 or 20 minutes.”

Someone who believes they’ve been exposed to the virus but doesn’t have symptoms should wait a week after exposure before getting tested, or they might get a false negative result, Polis said.

Both El Paso and Pueblo counties have drive-thru testing locations that are free and don’t require a doctor’s order or insurance.

El Paso County’s new community-based testing site at the Citadel Mall, in the parking lot south of JCPenney, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The Colorado State Fairgrounds testing site in Pueblo has temporarily moved to a parking lot at Arroyo and Acero avenues during the state fair, which runs through Sept. 7. The testing site recently expanded its hours. It’s now open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, according to the Pueblo County health department.

For information on community-based testing locations throughout the state, visit 2-1-1 Colorado’s website.