Coronavirus

COVID-19: The Teen Party That Became a Virus Outbreak

A look at Telluride from the air.
A look at Telluride from the air. YouTube
The most recent report regarding COVID-19 outbreaks from the Colorado Department of Public Health, dated July 1, revealed that new entries had nearly doubled from the previous week. But among the 25 freshly identified locations associated with the spread of the novel coronavirus, one stood out: It was described only as an "adolescent gathering in Telluride."

Turns out it was a party in the well-loved mountain town that attracted more than thirty teenagers, one of whom subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 — a diagnosis that triggered a multi-faceted response from the San Miguel County Public Health department. The approach used by department staffers to track and trace other potentially infected attendees mirrors the one codified in the new Protect Our Neighbors program, which calls for targeting outbreaks in ways that stop the spread before they can affect the community as a whole.

The CDPHE considers a facility an outbreak after two or more COVID-19 cases among residents, staffers or the like are confirmed within a fourteen-day period, or two or more cases of respiratory illness with an onset of symptoms within a fourteen-day period are paired with at least one additional COVID-19 diagnosis.

But outbreaks don't have to take place at an established business or government facility, such as a municipal office or detention centers. One of the first and most tragic outbreaks in Colorado was a bridge tournament in Colorado Springs during early March that resulted in ten positive cases, fourteen probable cases and four deaths.

The circumstances in Telluride were far less dire, according to Grace Franklin, San Miguel County's public-health director. "A teenager was symptomatic and did the right thing and got tested at the local med center," Franklin notes via email. "Contact-tracing best practices attempt to notify and quarantine close contacts from two days prior to a person's symptoms. The day prior to experiencing symptoms, there was a house party attended by the teenager."

Franklin went into greater detail in a June 18 message addressed to "San Miguel County parents." In it, she wrote, "A seventeen-year-old male from the Telluride community began to experience COVID-19 related symptoms this past Saturday, June 13th, and he subsequently tested positive for positive for COVID-19. Friday night, June 12th, he attended a social gathering with nearly three-dozen teens in Telluride. In our best efforts to protect your children, your family and our community, we want to alert you to this potential exposure and advise next steps."

The letter continued: "Please check with your teen to see if they attended Friday night’s gathering. If they were present, ask if they wore a face mask or maintained social distancing (at least six feet) the entire time. If they answer yes, they are considered low-risk of having been infected. If they answer no, they may be considered at high-risk of infection if they were within close contact (less than six feet) with the infected individual — or anyone else at the gathering who may have been unknowingly infected — for longer than fifteen minutes without a mask, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

Parents of partying teens with no symptoms were encouraged to call San Miguel County Public Health for guidance. But if an attendee showed signs of cough, fever, diarrhea and/or shortness of breath, parents were instructed to "keep them home and call your healthcare provider to arrange an evaluation and COVID-19 testing," as well as to "reel in your family's contact with others. It is not necessary to engage in a full quarantine (unless one of you is symptomatic). However, it is essential that you maintain vigilance to best practices including minimizing unnecessary contact with others for the next ten days," especially for families with other household members "considered at high risk for complications (the elderly, individuals with heart or lung disease, diabetes, or immunocompromised)." In such instances, "extra precautions should be taken to minimize contact with your teen if he was at the gathering."

In the letter, Franklin stressed, "This is not a time to panic, but rather to take clinically indicated steps to help keep this contained as much as possible." She also advised having "direct, age-appropriate conversations with all of our children about the critical importance of maintaining social distancing, wearing face masks and limiting social gatherings to no more than ten people. We realize that teenagers are social beings and this pandemic is cramping their style. But we know we must collectively change our behaviors, to change the trajectory of this pandemic."

Ultimately, the CDPHE discovered only two positive cases among party-goers, but that was enough to land the teen gathering on the outbreak list. "All proper protocol was implemented to contain the spread, including robust contact tracing and ensuring all positive and exposed individuals were isolated or quarantined," Franklin stresses. "No individuals were hospitalized and all have recovered."

That's the sort of happy ending for a teen party that any parent can support.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts