For months, La Plata County was able to keep the COVID-19 pandemic at bay. But now, in just a few short weeks, the community is fast approaching nearly 1,000 positive cases, a harrowing milestone for health officials.
“We’ve had more cases in the last three weeks than the first whole eight months,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.
From Nov. 1 through Friday, there were 566 presumptive positive cases compared with 427 cases from March 23 to Oct. 31.
The skyrocketing rise in cases can be attributed to a number of factors – people moving activities indoors because of the weather, small household gatherings, spread among co-workers, as well as the public becoming lax about regulations, according to experts.
But health officials say we’ve reached a critical moment in the pandemic, the moment feared back in March when many parts of the country were shut down to “flatten the curve” in an attempt to give hospitals time to prepare for a surge.
If the upward trend doesn’t slow, and infections continue to rise at an alarming rate, it could spell doom for the state’s health care systems, Jollon said, taking a toll on emergency responders and delaying any sort of return to relative normalcy.
“The question is, what are we able to do and willing to do as a community,” she said.
Residents took the first wave of shutdowns in March and April seriously, a time when not much was known about the virus and there wasn’t the widespread availability of testing there is now.
As life slowly started to reopen in early summer, people went back to work, restaurants started serving again and tourists began to flood the region in numbers not seen in recent years.
Despite all this, La Plata County’s case numbers remained low, mostly because of the outdoor lifestyle here.
“It didn’t seem as difficult to reduce the spread of infection when you have the opportunity to be outside,” Jollon said.
By mid-September, there were still just 250 or so positive cases.
The turning point, health officials say, was Halloween.
About a week after Oct. 31, cases started spike, and subsequent contact-tracing efforts tied many new positive cases to people who were at Halloween parties, indoors with people from several households.
Then, people’s actions in the days and weeks that followed further drove up cases.
People started to hang out inside more in general because the weather became cold. Health officials said cases were traced back to friends watching sports together, and holding small household gatherings.
Workplaces, too, have proved an effective spreading ground for the virus, especially businesses that tend to work outside the view of the public and may let their guard down on things such as social distancing and wearing a mask.
All this, health officials say, set up the perfect condition for the virus to spread rapidly throughout the community.
Jollon said health officials hoped antibody tests would help find out who was immune to the virus and who was still susceptible.
“But we quickly learned the information and technology, like so many things needed to fight COVID-19, was simply not there yet,” she said.
However, one thing definitely known about COVID-19, Jollon said, is that once transmission starts, it takes off. Studies indicate, for example, that one case can turn into 400 cases in a 30-day time period if not properly contained.
“The first couple weeks of a spike are silent spread until it shows up in the numbers,” Jollon said. “Then it’s hard to push back down.”
Because the county’s case numbers remained low, Jollon said some people in the community likely felt safer. As a result, some had lax attitudes about things such as social distancing or face coverings, which at the time, with such few cases, could slip by with little consequence.
But now, with the virus raging through the community, those behaviors could have detrimental impacts. It’s a message public health officials are trying to overcome nine months into the pandemic.
“The overarching reason for the recent surge in cases is that, psychologically, COVID fatigue is real – and it happens because humans have never been in this situation before,” said Brian Burke, psychology professor at Fort Lewis College.
Typically, stressors are not supposed to be long term or permanent, Burke said, but COVID-19 doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, and people for the most part are not equipped to handle an indefinite stressor.
What’s more, people are being asked to change nearly every facet of their daily life for a threat they can’t see. And many people, Burke said, including young people, feel the virus is not a threat to them.
“We are asking for a mass amount of unselfish behavior on a scale rarely seen in human history,” he said. “Yes, humans can cooperate, but under very specific circumstances when reciprocity is clear.”
As the holiday season nears, health officials are pleading with the public to find new ways to celebrate that don’t intermingle people from different households, which could further exacerbate the surge in cases.
Vicki Maestas, director of the Durango/La Plata Senior Center, said on a normal year, an estimated 220 seniors would come to the center for the annual Thanksgiving Day meal.
But this year, that’s not possible, especially because seniors are among the most at-risk populations for the virus. Instead, a team of volunteers Friday delivered nearly 200 Thanksgiving meals around the county.
To fight feelings of isolation, Maestas said center staff members regularly call seniors to check in just to chat. And more recently, the center has been hosting a virtual bingo night.
“We’re still able to reach a lot of those seniors who normally come in,” she said.
This winter’s celebrations are not going to be like normal years, health officials say, but refraining from some beloved traditions could help get a handle on the surge in cases, and in doing so, save lives.
La Plata County entered the “Level Red” safer at home public health regulations on Friday, one step below the most restrictive stay-at-home order, in an attempt to curb positive cases and avoid more drastic measures.
It will take about two weeks to see if those measures are successful, Jollon said. If cases abate, it’s likely regulations will loosen. If conditions worsen, it’s possible Gov. Jared Polis could issue a stay-at-home order.
The “levels” of regulations, Jollon said, are based on different criteria. To qualify for a stay-at-home order, that would mean a community’s entire health care system has been maxed out and broken down.
A spokeswoman for Mercy Regional Medical Center declined to provide specifics about hospital numbers, other than to say “we are still confident in the ability of our caregivers at Mercy to care for all patients in our community.”
According to state data, in the Southwest region (which includes Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties), there are 25 available ICU beds. As of Friday, 21 of those beds were occupied.
Yes, there is more testing capability, Jollon said, which, of course, leads to more positive tests. But the latest surge is also exemplified by the fact more than 1,500 people are hospitalized across the state, nearly double the previous peak.
La Plata County’s fatality rate has also remained low, with three people who reportedly died while they had COVID-19. But that’s no reason to take the current pandemic any less seriously, Jollon said.
“We know that this is and can be fatal for certain people, but we don’t know with a crystal ball who they are,” she said. “We are asking everyone to do their part so we don’t have to find out who those people are in our community.”
Right now, for instance, the majority of positive cases are among people between the ages of 20 and 29. But research shows that number fluctuates as age groups mix, which is yet another reason people are asked to not socialize with people from outside their household.
FLC’s Burke said it is important to remember this is a global problem, not just a Durango problem, and it is a temporary one, especially as a vaccine appears imminent.
So what can we do to stay somewhat mentally intact for the next few winter months in Durango?
“Exercise and get outside in our beautiful mountains, and, above all, connect with others safely in whatever way possible,” Burke said. “We will (re)emerge in spring. And, in the meantime, we need to do anything in our power to help make sure that our local businesses and those who have lost their jobs or contracted COVID re-emerge with us.”