Tracing and Testing: El Paso County Public Health on COVID-19 health equity and messaging efforts

Plus, UCCS ends agreement with Mountain Metro, and some updates on the aerosol theory

Good morning, and happy Wednesday. On this pre-pandemic date last year, Colorado College was hosting a “Music at Midday” concert in Packard Hall as part of their annual Summer Music Festival. (This week, the music festival is “from a distance,” aka, virtual.)

Today, we talk to the El Paso County Health Department about COVID-19 health equity and recap a decision by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to terminate its agreement with the city’s local bus line. We also revisit the aerosol theory.

➡️ICYMI: Yesterday, we took you behind the counter of Colorado College’s mailroom and recapped CC’s big shakeup of senior leadership.

Screenshot from El Paso County Public Health’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

El Paso County Public Health: COVID-19 cases on the rise in local Spanish-speaking community

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project spoke this week with two members of El Paso County Public Health about which areas of the county have been most impacted, barriers to health equity, and what tracing and testing efforts have looked like. 

🏠 Southeast Colorado Springs hit hard by outbreaks

“Regarding where the outbreaks are happening, it’s occurring more in southeast Colorado Springs specifically within our Spanish-speaking populations,” says Health Equity Planner Maggie Youkhana.

The 80910 zip code, for example, which encompasses Prospect Lake and Adams Elementary School, has a population of about 30,196 and is about 37.5% Hispanic or Latino, according to The Southeast Express newspaper. El Paso County Public Health’s data dashboard shows the area has 172 reported cases, a rate of 5.70 per 1,000. The 80916 zip code, which includes the Colorado Springs airport and borders Peterson Air Force Base, has a population of about 41,098 and is about 34.7% Hispanic or Latino, according to The Southeast Express. The 80916 area has 130 reported cases, or a rate of 3.16 per 1,000.

⚖️ Health equity in the age of COVID-19

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Youkhana worked on the case investigation team. She says she remembers contacting an individual in their 40s who had tested positive for COVID-19. The person was living with their older parents in a one or two-bedroom apartment, which made isolating difficult, and one of the parents got sick about two weeks later.  

In addition to limited living space for isolation or quarantine, Youkhana says some other barriers to health equity in the age of COVID-19 include: 

  • Lack of paid time off, or inability to take time off for primary income earners

  • Reliance on public transportation

  • Difficulties isolating because of food availability

“You’ll find a lot of times these are barriers or health issues that they’ve been dealing with before COVID, way before COVID, and that they’ll continue to experience after COVID,” Youkhana says. “But it’s because of this pandemic that these experiences are exacerbated.”

🔎 Five El Paso County contact tracers are fluent in Spanish

By now you might have heard about something called contact tracing, a process in which trained investigators work with COVID-19 patients to identify people they might have exposed so they can notify those contacts and encourage them to quarantine. National Geographic has called it “the most complex health investigation ever.” We thought we’d bring you a bit behind the scenes to show how this work actually looks where we live. 

Here in El Paso County, a case investigation team with about 15 members is leading contact tracing efforts. 

When someone gets word they’ve caught COVID-19, that’s when contact tracers spring into action. Investigators contact the patient and identify where they work and put the business on notice so they can start a disinfection process. 

“And then from there, all the case investigators will follow up and do that contact tracing, finding out who else might have been exposed to that, contact, and then quarantine or isolate from there,” Youkhana says.

About five staff members on the case investigation team speak Spanish. There are also staff members who speak languages such as a native African language and Russian, but other than English, the primary need has been to communicate with residents in Spanish, especially to conduct effective contact tracing.

El Paso County Public Health conducts messaging efforts in English and Spanish, and to better reach people, the health department has been working with local organizations such as the RISE Coalition and local leaders to help spread information in ways that are easily accessible. The department frequently releases updates on social media, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and NextDoor. They present graphics in both English and Spanish, and COVID-19 related-information is also available on the Public Health website

“For us, it’s kind of just getting messaging out as often as we can, in as many different platforms as we can, and just exploring ways that we can do so in a way that it’s going to be more meaningful for people,” says Public Health Information Officer Michelle Hewitt. 

🚘 Two drive-thru testing locations available in the Springs 

Looking to get tested? There are currently two locations offering drive-thru testing in El Paso County: UCHealth, in eastern Colorado Springs, and Peak Vista, in northeastern Colorado Springs. Even for people with no insurance, tests are free at the UCHealth location, but they may cost up to $69 at Peak Vista. You don’t need a doctor’s note to get tested, and test results should be available within 24 to 48 hours. 

You can find more information about test results, including the number of positive, negative, and indeterminate cases in your area, at the El Paso County Public Health data dashboard. As of June 16, health officials here have already swabbed 25,332 people for COVID-19. Of those, 1,424 came back positive, making for a 0.06 positivity rate. Only 106 tests (or about .42%) were “inconclusive.” 

“If you go to the El Paso County Public Health website, one of the first things that you’ll see on our page is the data dashboard and so within that, it’s a specialized page of data that provides the user to click around and look around the various graphs,” Youkhana says. “And it’ll also have other demographic data such as sex, age.”

Soon, she says, health officials will add race and ethnicity, too, and it could appear there as early as this week. 

Bye bye, buses: UCCS terminates agreement with Mountain Metro

During the summer of 2017, both Colorado College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, known as UCCS, joined an agreement with Colorado Springs local bus service Mountain Metro for students to ride free with a student ID. Last week, UCCS announced they were terminating their contract with Mountain Metro, beginning June 15.

“Due to the COVID-19 situation, and subsequent shift to remote learning for the spring and summer semesters, the agreement which allowed UCCS students to ride Mountain Metro buses for free has been terminated,” the university announced. “Beginning June 15, students utilizing the Mountain Metro bus system will need to purchase a ticket to ride.”

The agreement, called the “College Pass Program,” required colleges to pay $5 per student per semester for student access to the buses. For CC students, the Colorado College Student Government Association allocated funds from student fees toward the program.

Mountain Metro wrote on Twitter that the termination is because of “budget restrictions at UCCS”:

👀 Watch for: Announcements from Pikes Peak Community College and CC, the other two participants in the College Pass Program, on whether or not they will follow suit. 

The New York Times reports on the aerosol theory

Last week, our resident microbiologist Phoebe Lostroh spoke to The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project about a hypothesis that COVID-19 could be spread by aerosols, and explained the difference between aerosols and droplets in COVID-19 transmission. 

“I think that SARS Coronavirus-2 is being spread by aerosol, which was a controversial hypothesis several months ago,” Lostroh said. “The spread is much harder to contain by aerosols than by droplets.” 

Three days after we published, The New York Times ran an article about Dr. Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech who is also warning about a possible “airborne” transmission of coronavirus. 

“It’s hard to believe this pandemic could have spread the way it did so quickly around the world without the airborne route playing a role,” Richard L. Corsi, dean of engineering and computer science at Portland State University, told The New York Times. “It’s a frustration for people who understand aerosols and air pollution particles that this hasn’t received more attention.”

As the aerosol theory continues to gain ground in large media outlets, here’s an infographic created by CC students to remind you of the difference between droplet and aerosol transmission of COVID-19:

Infographic by Colorado College students Rana Abdu, Aleesa Chua, Sara Dixon, Jia Mei, and Lindsey Smith.

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is a student-faculty collaboration by Colorado College student journalists Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon, Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism Corey Hutchins, Assistant Professor of English Najnin Islam, and Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time, as will infographics by Colorado College students Rana Abdu, Aleesa Chua, Sara Dixon, Jia Mei, and Lindsey Smith.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

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