Update: The health department said on Sunday that another person has been tested for COVID-19 and results are pending. On Friday one person isolated and tested for COVID-19 came back negative for the virus.
Otero Health Department released a public service announcement Wednesday that said a person traveling through La Junta later tested positive for COVID-19 after they had left Colorado.
The announcement, drafted by Crowley / Otero Health Department Director Rick Ritter, said "For the brief period of time that this person was in La Junta, our current information suggests that they were very well insulated from the community, and their contacts were limited and identifiable."
Naturally, social media sprung to speculation: Where is the patient from? How long were they in the area? Where were they headed? How were they headed there?
A common rumor circulating some local circles is that the person was traveling by train and had stopped in La Junta temporarily.
When asked if he could confirm or deny the rumor, the health director said, "Absolutely not."
Ritter said in a phone call with the Tribune-Democrat that anywhere the patient visited has been "assessed for risk" by the state health department, and that he wouldn't hesitate to close a location determined to be at risk for spreading COVID-19 or other communicable diseases.
So far, the state health department has not determined there to be a risk at local locations the patient has visited, Ritter said.
"In this state of paranoia and anxiety," the health director continued, "if I release names of places, that is going to unduly impact them. I can tell you now, any of these places this patient was in, I would be more than willing to go in and take a deep breath, because I understand disease transmission and I'm not going to get it from that."
Ritter raised concern that some Asians could already be facing discrimination because this particular strain of coronavirus originated in China.
The health director reiterated that persons who could have been exposed to COVID-19 through interactions with the patient who traveled through La Junta have been placed under quarantine and are being monitored for signs and symptoms of infection. Ritter stressed that just because someone is under quarantine does not mean they are for sure infected; if a person were to begin displaying symptoms while in quarantine, they would then be placed into isolation.
"People use the terms isolation and quarantine interchangeably, they are not," said Ritter. "'Isolation' refers to a sick, symptomatic patient that is spreading contagions. If I had a fever now, I was coughing, and tested positive for COVID, I would issue an isolation order to that patient. We've got that isolation order written, ready to go."
And 'quarantine,' Ritter said, is reserved for patients who are not coughing, have no fever and are showing no signs of sickness, but nonetheless have been exposed to someone who has a contagious disease.
But if one is not sick, why should they be quarantined?
The simple way to put it is that, if one is harboring viral particles in their body and breathing them into the air (in the case of COVID-19), despite feeling fine, distancing themselves from others is the best way to ensure the disease is not exposed to people more vulnerable to it.
As Ritter has emphasized at recent public meetings, the people most vulnerable to something such as COVID-19, or even a seasonal flu, are the elderly and those with compromised or suppressed immune systems.
Health professionals such as Ritter describe this strategy as "social distancing," the health director explained. There are two types of social distancing that, if necessary, Ritter could order: targeted and non targeted social distancing.
The former would be used locally in the face of evidence the virus is spreading within a community. The latter would be ordered if people that have not traveled and have no links to travel are getting sick with the virus.
Those most vulnerable, or 'higher risk,' community members would be the first to be told to stay home, said Ritter.
"I would say, 'Okay, people in higher risk groups, here they are. People with chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes; organ transplant recipients on immunosuppressant drugs; elderly: You need to stay home for about four weeks. Worship at home. Don't go to church. Don't go out. If you've got some family members, they can go shopping for you, do that.'"
Ritter said he would give local media and the communities of Crowley and Otero Counties notice before such an order was issued.
"This is all aimed at protecting that group and slowing the spread of disease," Ritter added.
If the virus were to be successful in spreading through local communities, a non targeted social distancing order would be given. That would not just apply to vulnerable and higher risk persons, it would apply to everyone in the effective area.
"[Non targeted] Social distancing order says school is closed, you're not going to church, you only go out if you have to get food, gas, whatever. Understand that when you go out you're putting yourself and others at risk," Ritter said.
"Law enforcement will help us with gatherings of people, disbanding them. And yeah, you just, you don't go out unless you have to. Schools are closed, churches are closed, theater's closed, all those non essential stuff. Especially schools."
Ritter said at the Monday Board of County Commissioners meeting that he plans to meet with school districts and that he is in regular contact with superintendents from those districts.
The health director said that the evidence available to him does not suggest any social distancing orders need to be issued at this time. He said he does not know if the situation will escalate to a point where they become necessary.
Governor Jared Polis declared a state of emergency on Tuesday when there were 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Colorado. On Thursday the Pueblo Chieftain reported that the total confirmed cases had risen to 33.
CHSAA suspended all spring sports activities until early April on Thursday.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Wednesday established emergency rules urging senior facilities to limit visitations and conduct screening of visitors and staff. The same rules would apply to Colorado's veteran centers, regional hospitals and mental hospital.
Janice Leija at Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center in La Junta said they are directing people to use only the outpatient entrance to enter and exit the building, so that hospital staff can monitor who is going in and out as a safety precaution. Leija asked that if one has questions about the virus to direct them to the health department.
Leija added that she's seen a lot of "misinformation" on Facebook.
"There's just a lot of misinformation that is being circulated. At this point we just don't know how to nip it," said Leija.
Ritter offered advice of his own regarding the old rumor mill: "Get information and act on it from social media at your own risk."