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Crisis does different things to different people. The impacts are personal; sometimes obvious to others, sometimes borne in silence. COVID-19 is only the latest crisis to visit Chaffee County. The county’s leaders have shouldered it, and carried it, for months. Last Thursday, Ark Valley Voice (AVV) talked with Commissioner Greg Felt, Chair of the Board of County Commissioner (BOCC), as well as Chair of the Board of Health, about what these past months have been like.

“That’s a timely question,” said Felt. “A wave of emotion goes through me when you asked me. It has been challenging — a relentless 14 months since the Decker fire started. I can’t get the night that Sheriff John Spezze called me at 12.30 in the morning out of my mind. He was saying he was somewhere up on Methodist and ‘There are burning chunks of wood flying over my head; we’ve got to do something.’ From that moment on, it has been one thing after another. The pandemic is the latest crisis.”

The year 2020 is winding down and it has held crisis for all Americans. We have faced an unprecedented run of wildfires and other natural disasters, a political divide wider than the Mississippi, nationwide protests over social justice and civil rights, alarming news on the climate front, and an election with a clear result disputed by armed alt-right militias and patriot groups insisting that their reality is reality.

The pandemic is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Even as the hopeful news of vaccines is on the horizon, the next few dark, winter months could be the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In some ways what helps you get up in the morning is the urgency of it all,” said Felt. “It’s the combination of operating in that mode of a real pragmatic mode and — not heroic mode – but a stand-up-to-the-moment mode. You just have to do what you have to do. There are things that demand action right now.”

Felt added that doesn’t mean that county leaders aren’t tired. “You get more and more tired and run down, and hope we’re responding well to those moments … I’ve learned that’s what I was made for. What is hard is when you put out the fires and turn around and look at everything else that is still there….it is challenging.”

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, the BOCC made the decision to begin a Chaffee COVID Roundtable of leadership all across the county. Its very first meeting in March occurred just as the shutdown began. The room was tense, packed with leaders of county and municipalities, educators, first responders, law enforcement, public health, the Department of Human Services, Emergency Response and others. It was the only one that has been held in person.

The group met virtually five days a week for months, and still meets twice weekly as the county has navigated the state’s COVID-19 levels of concern, addressed public health and economic issues as a county-wide response.

County Commissioner Greg Felt. “It’s tough, I can’t lie,” said Felt, drawing a deep breath. “The person I talk to the most is [Chaffee Director of Public Health] Andrea Carlstrom. We talk almost every day, often a couple of times a day. I admit the team mentality she fosters is encouraging … it helps me, inspiring me to keep inspiring her. You’ve been in on the roundtable — it has become like a support group. Just committing to meet twice a week is motivational and inspiring. It keeps that pressure on us to keep moving forward.”

County Commissioner Greg Felt during the Ark Valley Voice Candidate Forum in Sept. 2020

On Friday, Dec. 11 the day AVV talked with Felt he said, “We’re sliding into Red ([on the state’s dial]. I didn’t think we were on the brink…I talked with Andrea and the borrowed time we got in the Yellow [on the dial] was even a bigger deal than I realize. Technically we weren’t already just in the Orange, we were borderline Red… is time for us to deal with this.”

“There was a lot of travel and mixing of households over Thanksgiving,” said Felt referred to the current rise in cases. “I expect to see those numbers take off. I just pulled up the county dashboard and we went from three to 14 COVID cases in one day, with three people hospitalized. Today the hospital is at 76 percent capacity.”

Felt said that given current case loads, the county testing is ramping up. This week it begins full time COVID-19 testing, five days a week at the fairgrounds. “That will flow right into vaccinations.”

Felt admits that he handles a great deal of frustration with those in the county, including a few leaders and some of the general public that haven’t taken the pandemic as seriously as conditions indicate.

“The other thing that helps me keep perspective —  this is nothing compared to being at war on our own soil, for example. But the uncertainty and threat we are dealing with is real. I think there is something dangerous and challenging mixing in the election politics with the public health danger.”

Felt says that it is easy to lose perspective, to feel like you are getting beaten down. In fact, while he ran for re-election unopposed, he is feeling like he still hasn’t started his second term. Recharging, he says is a matter of the outdoors and his family. He gets up early, around 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. to try to get centered and ready to go.

“I don’t get out a lot during the week – it gets dark early this time of year. During the summer I got on the river and I do big game hunting in the fall. I’m lucky to have a good home life – I love to cook, drink a few beers, talk with my wife. I can’t imagine doing it alone. I feel for younger, single people because life has been so altered.”

“I’d like to say that we should all acknowledge that we’re feeling weird – whatever that means,” he paused, thinking. “I don’t think I know anybody who is taking this in stride, that it isn’t affecting their emotions and their cognitive function. A lot of people aren’t thinking really clearly. We’re all experiencing something here. It’s not at all a sign of weakness to be feeling like you want to check yourself against some other measure. That measure is usually another person.”

“There is nothing normal right now. There is no question talking to [coroner] Jeff Graff – that there are people paying the mental health price.”

It’s time, he says, to look at mental health from different angles, including incorporating it intentionally into professional roles. “That’s why we are pushing that Solvista Health Colorado Spirit program. It’s free for anyone who needs help.”

“We’re very fortunate to have several highly trained professionals here, who can help you take your own measure, help you assess yourself and come up with your own strategies,” he added. “They are good at asking questions, listening, mirroring what they are hearing back to you.”

Felt said he’s encouraging residents to reach out to the professionals if things seem overwhelming. “It’s not like you’re conceding that the problem is too big – we should salute people who recognize that they need help. We’ve got these programs and they’re free. It’s just a conversation and it’s objective. I like how Solvista explains it; ‘We are having normal and natural reactions to a time of stress … different people experience them different ways. These are natural and normal responses to extraordinary events.”

Felt had a note of caution about COVID-19 for all county residents. “Somebody who doesn’t feel like this is a big deal is either in denial or sounds like a scary person. Our humanity is under attack right now. It’s  amazing to me we can’t summon even a mildly effective leadership out of the White House – it is really disheartening….we need to be pulling together, extending that grace and understanding together.”

Whatever you’re going through, crisis counselors and professionally trained peer specialists are available to help. Call Colorado Crisis Service’s hotline at 1-844-493-TALK(8255). There is no wrong reason to reach out.