An employee in the Rehab Department at Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center in La Junta tested positive for COVID-19, hospital CEO Lynn Crowell said in reply to an email inquiry by the newspaper.

The Rehab Department provides services such as physical and occupational therapy and is staffed by around 15 people.

The hospital was notified at 8:30 Tuesday morning that the employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The confirmatory test was ran independently of the hospital, Crowell said.

Crowley / Otero Health Departments Director Rick Ritter issued a press release Tuesday morning stating that a person tested positive for COVID-19.

Ritter said he couldn’t confirm or deny that the positive case was from the hospital, but he did say that Otero County has only one confirmed positive case as of Tuesday.

"The Hospital has shut down the Rehab Department, has conducted terminal cleaning of that department, and tested and quarantined all of the employees in that department," said Crowell. "The Health Department at this point has not indicated the need to contact any patients. AVRMC is ready to assist the Health Department once that decision is made."

The employee self-isolated and was not working while awaiting test results, according to the hospital.

The hospital CEO said that this event does not affect the rest of the facility because "it was isolated quickly, utilizing CDC and CDPHE guidelines."

The newspaper asked Crowell if the employee that tested positive had shown symptoms (fever, coughing, shortness of breath) at the time of the test or if symptoms had developed since, and Crowell said those questions needed to be directed to Otero County Health Department.

The newspaper also asked if the hospital knew or suspected when the employee contracted the virus. Crowell said to ask the health department.

Director Ritter at the health department said he couldn’t confirm or deny that a hospital employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and said that he could not speak to details of that alleged case.

Crowell emphasized that previously practiced safeguards such as hand washing and social distancing should continue at the hospital and among the public.

On Monday, La Junta Mayor Jeffri Pruyn stressed the importance of social distancing in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading among the community.

Should community spread become prevalent, she warned, the hospital could see a major influx of patients, which Pruyn called a "surge," that could strain its resources and make treating patients with COVID-19 and other ailments difficult.

Some hospitals in the United States and other countries around the world have become severely strained because of the flood of coronavirus patients.

Arkansas Valley Regional Hospital has 35 beds, four of which are intensive care units, available, according to Patient Representative Janice Leija.

To the west, as The Pueblo Chieftain has reported, the two Pueblo hospitals are not experiencing a large increase in patients, and only a handful of confirmed cases have been reported in Pueblo so far.

Officials of both St. Mary-Corwin and Parkview medical centers say they began making preparations months ago to deal with the coronavirus.

In a letter to the editor published in the Tribune-Democrat Tuesday, Crowell said that the Arkansas Valley hospital’s supplies are "fine," and that the hospital has been able to find alternative sources for supplies.

"Our personal protective equipment and disinfectant inventory is acceptable," Crowell said in the letter. "We have made our own hand sanitizer based on the World Health Organization recommendation for such."

Social distancing is the practice of avoiding large events, gatherings of people and maintaining at least a 6-foot distance away from others.

With social distancing, people can limit their exposure to the virus and prevent themselves from catching or spreading it.

Social distancing doesn't just protect one's own health. It protects the people who are at higher risk of falling seriously ill or succumbing to the disease.

Higher risk people include the elderly (60-65 years old or older), the immunocompromised and people with serious underlying medical conditions, including moderate to severe asthma, heart disease and severe obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ritter said the Otero County Health Department is "following CDC guidance to the letter."

He explained tiers of health risks that health officials use to determine who is most and least susceptible. Those tiers aren’t well understood by the public, said Ritter.

"If you’re at medium risk, you’re still at risk," said Ritter. "If you’re at low risk, you’re still at risk. If you’re at no recognizable risk, you’re still at risk."

Ritter referenced exposure risk categories outlined by the disease control centers.

The risk categories range from "no recognizable risk" to "high risk."

A person is considered at no recognizable risk if they have simply walked passed an infected patient or briefly stood in the same room, according to the disease control centers.

One would be placed in the high risk category if they are living in the same household as a COVID-19 confirmed positive individual; if they are a caretaker for that individual or an intimate partner, for example.

Risk in that scenario can still potentally be reduced by following CDC precautions for home care and home isolation.

Ritter said when one is at low risk, the chances are that they won’t get sick.

"Chances are," he stressed. "When you’re at medium risk, yeah, based on CDC protocol it’s still a pretty good chance you won’t come down with it from this contact. But maybe another contact we’re unaware of ...

"High risk is, yeah, you’ve got a good chance."

Ritter said as of Tuesday that high risk patients in the area are in quarantine and they are not getting sick.

"We are thrilled about that," said Ritter.

He commended medical providers who "acted swiftly" and according to official health procedures to quarantine and/or isolate as necessary.

The health director reiterated a warning he has issued repeatedly about believing what one sees on social media. For weeks now, he said, his office has been barraged with calls about conspiracy theories and untrue rumors regarding the spread of the coronavirus in Crowley / Otero Counties.