It is no longer avoidable. At 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4 Chaffee County will be moved to the state’s COVID-19 Orange status; designating the county as a high risk due to our surging COVID-19 case count.
Chaffee County Public Health (CDPH) Director Andrea Carlstrom announced the state’s decision during the county’s COVID-19 Roundtable on Monday afternoon. She said she hasn’t even had time to write the press release and had pleaded with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) for more time for the county.
“They gave us time to try to turn this around and we weren’t able to do it,” said Carlstrom, speaking of the efforts over the past two weeks to urge county residents to follow the public health guidelines, wear face masks and stop gathering in groups. “The CDPHE time frame was 5:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2. but we asked for a little more time — we owe that to the community — to prepare our retailers, restaurants, gyms, fitness facilities. One of the biggest changes will be the move from 50 percent capacity to 25 percent capacity.
Carlstrom stressed that the COVID-19 situation in the county is surging. “Every single action is contributing to what feels like a tsunami at this point.”
“Our contact tracing systems show the dam is bursting,” said Carlstrom. “The state has basically said the spread is so drastic that the value of contact tracing has diminished. One of my nurses said ‘at this point it feels like we’re putting out a wildfire with a squirt gun.”’
“Saturday we had 29 new cases — a record. Today we had four new positives, but we’ve had almost 60 new positive cases of COVID in the past week and 114 cases in Chaffee County in 14 days. There are no words for what that looks like from the pubic health side of things.”
Across the state, hospitalizations and deaths are rising at rates comparable to last spring. Carlstrom said as of this week CDPHE estimates “that one in 41 Coloradans has COVID-19 and in some places it’s one in 20.”
She added that a New York Times survey mapped what percent of each county in the U.S. planned to eat outside their households for Thanksgiving. “In Chaffee we averaged about 25 percent, so we are anticipating some type of surge a week to two weeks after Thanksgiving. We anticipate exponential growth.”
CDPH has worked urgently with the county’s school districts to try to keep the COVID-19 case count of kids under 35 in number, so the county could stay in Yellow. “We’ve been creative but technically we should have moved to Orange sooner. CDPHE gave us ample time to course correct and not all counties got that time.”
“We have fought tooth and nail to ramp our public health strategies – it is down to each personal action and decision we take.” She said that it is clear that group gatherings, the lack of face masks and social distancing and travel continue to be spreading events, adding that “the businesses owners and the employees are the ones who are going to suffer.”
She paused and added in a quiet voice, “I feel like right now public health along with our partners are experiencing a dam break — we’ve been putting our hands on all these holes to keep the dam from breaking, but at a certain point we have no more hands. It’s up to our community — are they willing to make the sacrifices necessary. This is a plea to our community – moving to an Orange level may be crippling – at least we can say we’ve had several weeks to prepare – but it is just NOT happening.”
“We knew this was coming – the models said this would happen,” said Chaffee Commissioner and Chair of the Board of Health Greg Felt. “We can understand that at an academic level, but when these thresholds appear, it is tough…. we are struggling with human nature and human behavior … anybody in these leadership positions at some point starts to scratch their heads about their fellow human beings, and what their priorities are.”
Carlstrom added that the county’s leaders “must set the example, showing that we are taking it seriously – we must wear masks and limit our gatherings. I know it’s tough, I know we are tired of it – we are on the tipping point right at this moment and it will take each of us to turn this around.”
While vaccines are coming, the county, the state, the nation – have to first get to that point. Carlstrom said CDPH is increasing staff and hours for curative testing, and that current call volume has strained the main phone line capacity, so they are looking at being the first county in Colorado to attempt to set up a self appointment feature.
“I want to emphasize what Andrea said — that public health has put it out there,” said Felt. “There’s not a whole lot of mystery … the vaccine is going to take awhile. This is going to come down to individual decisions.”