As Summit County cases drop, leaders reflect on 2 years of the pandemic
Two years ago, Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence was still tracking COVID-19 cases into the early hours of March 14. She had been meeting with ski resort leadership all day about how to move forward, and they had to make a decision fast.
“We were due to have our biggest week of spring break, so we were under a little bit more of a deadline then the rest of the country,” Lawrence said. “We were set to have over 100,000 visitors descend upon our county in the next 24 hours. I respect the decision that Vail Resorts made that they would stop the lifts. That is the moment I knew. I was on the phone with Vail Resort executives down in Broomfield, and I knew then that this was historic and different and not just a one-time thing.”
March 5 marked the first case in Summit County and Colorado as a whole, and as days passed more cases across the country began to be reported. By March 16, all nonessential businesses in the county closed, and the county’s stay-at-home order began.
Lawrence said she wrestles with thinking about what she and other local leaders could have done differently, but looking forward to what could be considered a light at the end of a tunnel, she thinks that the safety precautions put in place kept people safe.
“What we can’t track is, what did we save?” Lawrence said. “How many did we prevent from getting sick? How many of you did we prevent from death by putting in these restrictions? I know they were hard — looking back, some of them were very extreme — but our economy rebounded back in such a strong way. I have to think about how many people did we help, and that will never be known.”
In February, a news conference from Gov. Jared Polis marked a new stage of how communities are recommended to handle COVID-19. In his address, Polis said that fully vaccinated people should “live without undue fear,” and the emergency phase of the pandemic in Colorado is over. The same day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed masking guidelines for 70% of Americans.
Locally, Summit County’s case rates are the lowest they have ever been, and vaccine clinics in the county will begin to consolidate. In April, Summit County Public Health will be moving away from offering clinics five days per week, and patients will then have to visit a local pharmacy, health provider or the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s vaccine bus to receive a vaccine. The bus will visit the county twice each month through June.
Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said that though the pandemic is still happening, the community is now in a place to look toward how COVID-19 is affecting patients long-term. The pandemic exposed gaps in the country’s health systems, she said, and those should be addressed going forward.
“The other thing that is really important to understand is that the pandemic will always be remembered for the tragic death toll that happened,” Wineland said. “It’s really important to recognize that we’re realizing other huge issues that we knew existed before, but have been exacerbated and come to the light in a way that we never expected, and we need to focus on addressing them.”
Wineland said that this includes the nationwide mental health crisis, which could be seen in increased overdose deaths in the past two years. Because of recent success in mitigating the virus, she said that health professionals now have more time to tackle these issues.
“We don’t know what (long-haul) COVID will look like and how that will impact patients long-term,” she said. “(That includes) long-term health care, the damage it’s done to our economy, and especially the disproportionate impact that COVID had on our under-served populations. Now we’re just realizing that housing and education and a good paying job are also so critical to health.”
Wineland added that health care professionals will know how to better tackle misinformation regarding emergency situations in the future. With changing situations and new data, she said, health guidance is bound to change as well, so making sure the public knows why things change is important.
“We really needed to enhance and do better, better at constantly fighting a whole system of misinformation that’s out there now that maybe we hadn’t had to in the past,” Wineland said. “We hadn’t encountered that in prior pandemics like during the H1N1 outbreak. Social media wasn’t there. I think really battling the misinformation out there has been a real big challenge throughout this. We need to come up with ways to do a better job of addressing information in a systematic way, not just regarding COVID, but really anything that’s coming.”
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