The Crestone Eagle • November, 2020

Corona virus upswing in SLV & Chaffee County

by Larry Joseph Calloway

A peak in new COVID-19 cases in the geographical circle around Crestone began in late September and continued into the last two weeks of October.  In just four days (10/15-10/19) both Chaffee and Alamosa Counties reported 14 new cases. For the first 15 days of October Chaffee reported 24 new cases, Alamosa reported 28, and Saguache County reported six, according to daily records of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

That more than doubled the Chaffee test positivity rate to 4% and sent the Alamosa rate slightly above the state rate of 5%.

The San Luis Valley reported 65 new cases in the first half of October. SLV Emergency, which consolidates reports from the six counties, posted this comment:  “In some ways, our current rise in cases is very similar to the rise we experienced in the beginning of May. By the end of May, we had an extremely high number of cases.”  CDPHE reports showed that in a three-week period ending June 5, new SLV cases had totaled 163, reflecting outbreaks among agricultural workers. In the current three-week period new SLV cases numbered 65.

The web site added: “On the hopeful side, a smaller percentage of COVID-19 patients are dying than earlier in the pandemic.”  The SLV death toll has remained at 14 since the beginning of September. The Chaffee death toll stood at 19 for four months following the disastrous outbreak at a Salida longterm care facility, adding one in October.

The current peaks in both the SLV and Chaffee began in a time of high visitation by tourists, although outbreaks identified by the State involved only local residents. The mid-October list of active outbreaks, for example, included two office environments in the SLV—Power Zone Equipment in Center with 4 infected workers and the SLV Rural Electric Co-op in Monte Vista with 3. Active outbreaks in Chaffee were a contractor, Geo Stucco, with 4 plus 1 probable, and a campground called Young Life Trail West Lodge with 7 plus 1 probable cases.

Andrea Carlstrom, Chaffee County Public Health director, said in her well-read biweekly report:

“Other than at the beginning of the pandemic and until recently, Chaffee County has been able to reduce the transmission of the virus, despite many people visiting from out of the county and state, reducing restrictions, and mild but real resistance to the public health strategies.”

She went on to say, “The sudden increase in positive cases has me concerned. Our county has made so many sacrifices to get to and maintain a stable COVID-19 environment, and while we are all experiencing pandemic fatigue, now is not the time to give up or become lax in our decisions. With the cooler months upon us, including several holidays that include tradition, celebration, and joy, it will be tempting to engage in activities that increase the spread of the virus. Many of us will be experiencing a wide range of emotions as we have to make difficult decisions for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. CCPH urges you to please do what you can to be accountable and responsible in the months to come, as we are all in this challenging and uncertain time together.”

Her county, in cooperation with Heart of the Rockies Regional Health Center, adopted an early program of free testing by appointment, and recently hired two staffers to track contacts with local residents testing positive.

SLV Emergency has been responsible for consolidated daily reports from the valley counties. But the Valley does not have a spokesperson and leader like Carlstrom. Alamosa, Saguache and Rio Grande, the three counties with most of the SLV population, have been without public health directors since the beginning of the pandemic—due to resignations in the first two counties and a political firing in Rio Grande. The counties have not been able to fill the positions, despite advertising for applicants.

One suggestion, which came in conversation with Saguache County Commissioner Jason Anderson, is that due to budget constraints of smaller population counties, the valley might create a single public health director to handle administrative duties and free the health care staffs of the individual counties to do more of theirs.

The morbidity rate in the region has not followed the surge in verified COVID cases.  The Chaffee death toll increased by one last week after standing at 19 since late May.  The SLV death toll has stayed at 14 since early September.

The New York Times investigated the difference between state reports of deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 and the total deaths in excess of the norm.  The difference implies a higher COVID death toll nationally—perhaps 260,000 by comparison with 210,000 in early October. For Colorado the excess death toll was 3,300, compared with 1992. For New Mexico it was 1,500 compared with 821. In both states the corrected total would be 17% higher.