The Crestone Eagle • December, 2020

San Luis Valley COVID cases greatly increase

by Larry Joseph Calloway, Crestone Conglomerate

Alamosa was raised to the red warning level, or the fifth in the state’s six-step ranking of county COVID dangers, while Chaffee, Saguache and Rio Grande counties remained “yellow,” or at the third level that represents the state median.

Red means “severe risk of COVID-19 spreading rapidly,” requiring businesses that are allowed to remain open to operate at “very limited capacity,” according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and yellow means elevated transmission levels but no shutdowns.

The evaluations by are based on a number of factors including new cases, percentage of positives in testing and impact on hospitals.

Only four days earlier, when Alamosa was still one level down at the moderate “orange” risk evaluation, the chief medical officers of the three hospital and clinic groups serving the San Luis Valley issued a joint statement urging compliance with pandemic safeguards plus getting flu shots in the wake of the region’s infection surge.

“In recent days, the rapid rise in COVID-19 has put a strain on emergency departments, clinics and hospitals in the San Luis Valley across the state of Colorado, and in our neighboring states as well.” they said. “There is a high level of this contagious disease spreading within our community, mostly within social settings.”

The executives suggested alternatives to in-person shopping, such as buying online for delivery curbside pickups. They said, further, “When you are ill, please stay home unless you have an emergency. Use video chat or the telephone to visit with your primary care provider. Be sure to get your flu shot. Cover your face when around others, and keep your distance. Keep your contacts to a minimum, and avoid non-essential outings. Please avoid gatherings that are not limited to people you live with every day. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Please follow instructions if you are told to isolate or quarantine.”

The unusual joint statement was by Dr. Carmelo Hernandez of San Luis Valley Health, Emelin Martinez of Valley-Wide Health Systems and Dr. Heidi Helgeson of Rio Grande Hospital and Clinics.

Because statistics can have a wide margin of error when applied to relatively small populations, the high test positivity rates of Alamosa (14.5%) and Saguache County (17.5%) at the end of November can be misleading. Positivity is expressed as the number per 100,000, and Alamosa’s estimated population is 16,312 while Saguache’s is only 6,815.  Still the numbers are warnings compared with the overall state rate of 11%.

On the other hand the positivity rate in the other main shopping and medical providing area for the northern SLV, Chaffee County (pop. 20,392), was only 3.6%, belying the growing concern of health officials in Salida.

In a statement issued by Andrea Carlstrom, the Chaffee public health director, the county pled: “Every new positive case means that we are that much closer to putting restrictions on our local economy and education. We are inching toward the orange level. Please think.  Every interaction you are involved in—that interaction increases risk of spread.  Increased risk of spread means that your favorite local business might have to shut down, your school might need to go into quarantine, our community might need to move into another Stay at Home.”

Drive-thru covid testing was conducted at the Crestone Fire Department in town on November 18. photo by Lori Nagel

Where and how the COVID virus spreads is more easily pictured in the state’s list of confirmed “outbreaks.” In Alamosa, for example, a wedding on Oct. 28 left 17 people infected. Other Alamosa outbreaks still ranked as “active” and the total confirmed or probable infections  included in each were:

The Alamosa County Department of Human Services, 9 employees. Children’s Garden Early Learning Center, 3 staff members and one child. Sonic Drive In, 7 employees. The Door church, one staffer and 8 attendees, Wal Mart, 4 staffers.

In Chaffee County there was one active outbreak:  High Country Bank, 2 employees. In Saguache County there also was one active outbreak:  Migrant Head Start at Center, 3 staffers.

COVID infection rates in Saguache, Chaffee and Alamosa Counties were ascending their steepest peaks in mid November, as they were in the two SLV Counties, Costilla and Conejos, bordering on New Mexico.  Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham of New Mexico returned the state to its early lockdown, closing all non-essential businesses and requiring residents to “shelter at home.” Lujan Grisham, who was state health director before she entered politics, said the state was experiencing “an unprecedented surge.”

My record of county totals reported by the State Health Department shows the acceleration of infections in the Crestone region from mid-month to mid-month (on the 15th of each) since July:

• Alamosa County:  July 204 cases, August 233, September 240, October 291, November 460.

• Chaffee County:  July 123, Aug. 304, Sept. 318, Oct. 358, Nov. 501.

• Saguache County: July 103, Aug. 106, Sept. 111, Oct. 117, Nov. 193.

Similar graphic increases were shown for Rio Grande County, which went from 112 in October to 174 in November.  From Oct. 15 to Nov. 15, the case increase for Conejos was from 44 to 128 and Costilla from 34 to 59.