Mesa County holds steady on Covid-19 rate, but threat remains from gatherings

GRAND JUNCTION, CO – Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health, reported this morning at the Mesa County Commissioners administrative meeting that, overall, “we’re doing a good job” in terms of containing the Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rate.

Kuhr said that as of yesterday, the county had conducted about 4,600 tests, with six positive tests recorded just yesterday. Of the 95 total positive tests in Mesa County, about 20 have not yet recovered. One individual remains hospitalized.

In the meantime, the health department is waiting on additional guidance regarding the existing state orders on reopening and the county variance from the state Safer at Home directives. The next phase allows for greater flexibility and reopening, including up to 75% capacity at events and group sizes of up to 500. They’re looking at events such as the upcoming Peach Festival and the Tour of the Moon, both of which are outdoors and where attendees are moving around freely.

“Some activities have [foot] traffic that move around a lot,” he said, which can help tremendously in keeping virus transmission rates low.

However, Kuhr cautioned that the biggest threat the county faces now in keeping the Covid-19 infection rate down are private group gatherings. He said that his office had heard of family gatherings involving multiple households, including one graduation party this weekend that had up to 200 attendees.

“That will get us in trouble,” he said. He is asking Mesa County residents to adhere to public health guidelines and to come in and get tested if they have been exposed in high risk situations or are experiencing symptoms. The county has added an additional lane to the testing site at the Mesa County Fairgrounds, which allows for even greater testing capacity of up to 75 per day.

“If you feel symptomatic, or you were in a high risk situation, let’s get you tested,” he said.

Kuhr noted that 35% of all cases involve people between the ages of 20-40, which he said likely explains the low hospitalization rate, since younger people have a lower risk of contracting a more severe form of the disease.

Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center, next reported on the conditions of the local labor market in the wake of Covid-19. The center, whose physical office was closed on March 18, has continued to work virtually since and has recently reopened for appointments.

Englehart reported that the center, which launched a virtual call center during the pandemic, received about 3,000 inbound calls and returned about 2600 outbound calls, mostly from people who had lost their jobs and had questions about unemployment benefits. The center saw 200 new job orders during that time, a number down 35% from the same period last year.

Mesa County’s unemployment in April was 12.6%, a record high for the area and an astonishing number when compared to September 2019’s historic low of just over 2%. However, Englehart said that the county is seeing a decline in the unemployment rate, with May clocking in at 9% due in large part to the small businesses reopening.

Englehart said that the state unemployment rate is 10.2%, while the national unemployment rate is at 13.3%, so the county rate compares very favorably to conditions elsewhere.

“We have seen some good signs,” he said, “but it’s a long road ahead.”

Commissioner Chair Scott McInnis inquired about the workforce center’s efforts to help workers affected by the contraction in the oil and gas industry. Englehart said that many of Halliburton’s workers were given the option to transfer to the company’s operations in Texas, but they’re working closely with the company to try and retain more of the local workforce here.

Commissioner Rose Pugliese reported that she had spoken with Angela Padelecki, director of the Grand Junction airport, and that airport operations are nearly at full capacity now.

“All flights are packed,” Pugliese said, and Grand Junction now has direct service to Denver, with plans to reintroduce twice-daily service from American and United soon.

Both Pugliese and Commissioner John Justman briefly noted recent bills that passed in the state legislature that, in Justman’s terms, “aren’t business-friendly.”

County Administrator Peter Baier noted that the county, including the Sheriff’s Office, will be reviewing how the new House bill SB217 will be implemented.

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