County leaders say early planning, community support saved lives during pandemic

A bandage covers the injection site of a COVID-19 vaccine on a recipient's arm during a drive-thru clinic at the Summit Stage bus depot in Frisco on Friday, March 19, 2021.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

The days are getting warmer, vaccines are readily available and communities across the state are reopening with looser restrictions.

As life returns to this new normal, community leaders and members alike will begin to dig deeper into understanding how their strategies, measures and communication methods succeeded or failed at keeping citizens safe from COVID-19.

One such measure, and perhaps the most obvious, is examining the death rate for each community and how many people were lost to the virus.

According to a press release sent out by the county last week, U.S. News ranked Summit County ninth in its Healthiest Community Rankings for 2020. Of the top-25 communities, the county had the second-lowest COVID-19 fatality rate.

Right now, the county’s website lists eight deaths among cases, but there are nine listed on the state’s website. In an email sent Thursday, June 3, Summit County Director of Public Health Amy Wineland said she’s unsure why there is a discrepancy, and she would need to work with her team to dig in deeper. She also noted it could be a data error.

“Verifying the cause of death sometimes takes several weeks,” Wineland said in the email. “It could be that the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reviewed a death and determined it to be COVID related after it was labeled something else.”

Even with this ninth death, Summit County still has one of the lowest number of deaths among cases.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, using the county’s eight total deaths among cases, the county has one of the lowest death rates per capita at 0.00026%. According to this data, Summit County ranks eleventh in the state for lowest death rate.

So what contributed to this success? Wineland said it was the quick planning of local leaders and the rallying support of the community that put the county in a strategic spot from the beginning.

“Meetings with stakeholders occurred early on and were coordinated by the Emergency Operations Center and were ongoing throughout the pandemic,” Wineland said. “The virus was new to all of us, and we were all learning as we went. We had daily briefings where all stakeholders could ask questions, and we all strategized together to keep our community safe.”

Wineland directly attributes the county’s low COVID-19 death rate to some of the measures put in place early on.

“There was no playbook, but we knew that we needed to stop people from gathering to have the best possible outcome,” Wineland said. “We went on lockdown, put a mask order in place, closed nonessential businesses and lodging.”

In fact, the death rate was so low that some community members believed the county should have eased restrictions long before it actually did. Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard said though restrictions did save lives, he was glad for comments like these that helped put decisions into perspective.

“I certainly appreciate the feedback and the engagement that we’ve received from the community,” Blanchard said. “Those types of comments that we’ve received have certainly helped inform (us) as we’re thinking about the impacts that these decisions have on everyday folks.”

As for Wineland, she said she’s interpreting the low death rate and complaints about the county being too strict as a win for all.

“Public health is always the victim of its success,” Wineland said. “Success in the pandemic will mean that people will look back and say that we over-reached and did too much because it wasn’t that bad. The fact that our death rate remained low and our hospital was not overwhelmed is proof that we did the right thing. We will never know how many lives were saved. But we do know that states and counties that put restrictions in place early on had lower death rates.”

Both Blanchard and Wineland acknowledged that any deaths resulting from the virus were deeply felt by the community. Moving forward, Wineland said she’s continuing to spread the message that vaccines are effective at getting communities back to life as normal and preventing serious illness.

“We also have one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, and that is allowing us to get back to the Summit life we all love,” Wineland said. “It is so wonderful to greet each other face-to-face, without masks, and hug again.”

Graphic shows COVID-19 deaths per capita in Colorado counties.
Graphic by Taylor Sienkiewicz /


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