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Otero health director on how to break down the bridges of coronavirus spread

Christian Burney
Fowler Tribune
Otero Health Director Rick Ritter and County Attorney Nathan Schultz address disinformation appearing on social media amid mask mandate.

Otero County will officially move to Level Orange (High Risk) on the COVID-19 dial created by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment Friday, following another 36 recorded COVID-19 cases in Otero alone since Nov. 6. 

As record breaking rates of new cases emerge across much of Colorado, Crowley/Otero Health Director Rick Ritter joined Gov. Jared Polis in urging local Coloradans to cancel social gatherings through the month of November.

The reasons were to prevent illness and help position the economy onto a path for recovery as well as curb the spread of the novel coronavirus before hospitals across the state become overwhelmed.

"Those people who haven't taken it seriously, now's the time," Ritter said. "We don't get back into a situation like we were in the beginning where hospitals are being overrun and we don't have ICU beds for critically ill people. We don't have ventilators for critically ill people."

Ritter said he attended a conference call Wednesday night with public health directors, the executive director of the state health department Jill Hunsaker Ryan and the chief medical officer, and that the potential for hospitals to reach critical mass was a concern.

Referral hospitals — the hospitals that patients would be sent should Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center be overrun —  are in the metro area, Ritter said.

The concern for health officials is that, should the whole state fall into a "surge mode" of new cases and hospitalizations, the metro area hospitals will quickly fill up with patients from the immediate area.

"The metro region is going to be saturated," said Ritter. "We had a representative from the metro region hospitals on the call. And it's very true."

In March when COVID-19 was still new in most Otero County residents' minds, Ritter warned that overrun hospitals was a possibility that needed to be avoided. The health director reviewed ways that one can do their individual part to suppress the transmission of the virus, actions that he described as mind-bogglingly simply: Wear a mask.

"People, put on your masks," Ritter urged. "Protect yourself, protect others. Help the community ... we want to prevent illness. We want to prevent deaths and we want to keep our economy open. That's part of the game plan is to keep our local businesses open. We don't want to go into 'Stay At Home.' It's not good on people's mental health, it's not good on their physical health, it's not good for the economy. Get with the game plan, everybody. Put your mask on."

Ritter said a newly released mask effectiveness study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that mask use does not only protect others from the wearer (should they be contagious with COVID-19), but mask use protects the wearer him or herself, too.

In a scientific brief dated Nov. 10 called "Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2," the CDC says that in addition to protecting others from the mask wearer, the wearer themselves have improved protection from potential COVID-19 particles. Read more about this at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html.

Mask use when around others is important, but avoid unnecessary contact with people who one doesn't live with is vital.

"Diseases make their living by spreading between people," said Ritter. "If we keep our distance between people outside our household, we're going to infringe on their (the virus's) opportunity to reproduce, replicate, do things like that. So keep our distance. (It's) very simple, straightforward.

"Coming out of the governor's office and the state health department — and this is going to be very hard, we need to do it — just stay within your family group for the month of November. Let's break down the bridges of transmission between people and let's just stay within our family groups, and I'm doing that two."

Ritter provided an anecdote: His family and his brother's family would meet every Sunday to watch the Broncos. They're all big Broncos fans, Ritter said. But this NFL season, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health official's family has not gathered for any games.

"This is truly an all hands on deck thing," said Ritter. "This is not one agency. It's not just the health department, it's not just the schools, it's not the businesses. This is everybody. It's personal responsibility. It's the simple things, it's the dial, which we look at the dial to see what official level we're in. We do our stuff per that, our event gathering sizes, our capacities for businesses, the schools have got guidance for each level, that sort of thing. We want to move left on the dial. We're not going to do that unless we get really good compliance. Everybody gets under the weight and helps it. Like the saying says, many hands make the load lighter."

In reviewing the COVID-19 dial (https://covid19.colorado.gov/data/covid-19-dial), one can see that if Otero County slides further back than the Orange Level (High Risk), it will have landed in the Red Level in which Stay at Home orders become mandatory which means most nonessential businesses will be forced to close again.

"If you look on that matrix, it (Stay At Home) calls for businesses and says, 'Closed, closed, closed, closed, closed.,'" said Ritter. "When you don't have customers walking in the door, you don't have any revenue coming in, and that's going to hurt the economy. It's a pleading.

My first priority is people, but people are tied intimately and intricately to the economy and to business. That's how we make money so we can eat, which helps keep us healthy. It's really quite simple. We need to suppress the transmission of this virus so we don't go back to those dark days."

On a slightly lighter note, Ritter said he thinks Otero County can avoid the Red Level for now. He would not speak to details, but the health director said he is monitoring "some encouraging preliminary data as far as data is concerned."

Ritter said he thinks he will be ready to share the data that makes him hopeful by Friday.

Ritter said yes, some people have not taken the pandemic seriously. But, he said, many individuals, businesses and schools are, and Ritter applauded and thanked them for their efforts.

"Yeah, there are people who don't take it seriously, but I'll tell you, there's a lot of people who do," Ritter said. "There's a lot of organizations who do, and the reason I know that is I see it and I hear it. We get the calls, we get the emails, 'How can I do this? How can I make this work under the new restrictions we're under?'"

When asked about local businesses that have ignored the statewide mask mandate requiring mask use in public, Ritter said his team is reaching out to businesses that the health department receives reports about to educate them about the mandate and the effectiveness of mask use in curbing the spread of the disease. Ritter said there is potentially pending litigation with some entities should they decide to continue not to cooperate with public health guidelines, mandates and restrictions.

However, he said, his first priority is contact tracing and investigations in order to track and suppress further transmission of the virus.

"Su Korbitz and Tony Harveston, they're the ones doing the follow-up with businesses, and they have called a lot of them," said Ritter. "Some businesses, they have responded well. Others, yeah, we may have to talk to them in court.

This is in the process, and I wouldn't call it pending litigation, I would call it potentially pending litigation. Once it gets into that realm, that's with our attorney. We're working with our attorney Nathan Schultz very, very closely. He's doing an excellent job."

Ritter said that if one sees that mask use is not being practiced by a business, or one has other public health concerns, to contact Korbitz at ehdir@oterogov.org or 383-4728; or Harveston at  eha@oterogov.org or 383-3087.