GRAND JUNCTION | Dr. Rachel LaCount grasped a metal hoop at a playground and spun in circles with her 7-year-old son, turning the distant mesas of the Colorado National Monument into a red-tinged blur.
LaCount has lived in this western Colorado city of 64,000 nearly her whole life. As a hospital pathologist, she knows better than most that her hometown has become one of the nation’s top breeding grounds for the delta variant of COVID-19.
“The delta variant’s super scary,” LaCount said.
That highly transmissible variant, first detected in India, is now the dominant COVID strain in the United States. Colorado is among the top states with the highest proportion of the delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mesa County has the most delta variant cases of any county in Colorado, state health officials report, making the area a hot spot within a hot spot. A CDC team and the state’s epidemiologist traveled to Grand Junction to investigate how and why cases of the variant were moving so quickly in Mesa County.
At her hospital, LaCount has put in orders for more rapid COVID tests as the caseload has grown. She’s seen the intensive care unit start filling up with COVID patients, so that hospital officials are placing two in a room against normal practices.
Despite these alarming signs, many in Mesa County have let down their guard. The rate of eligible residents fully vaccinated has stalled at about 42% LaCount has noticed that few people wear masks anymore at the grocery store. Thousands of people recently flocked to Mack, 20 miles from Grand Junction, to attend the Country Jam music festival, which could accelerate the variant’s spread to the concertgoers’ hometowns.
“We’re making national news for our COVID variant and the CDC is here investigating, but we have a huge festival where people aren’t masking,” said LaCount. “Are we going to get herd immunity over here just because everyone’s going to get it? I mean, that’s probably going to happen at some point, but at what cost?”
LaCount’s worries aren’t necessarily for herself or her spouse — they are both vaccinated — but for their son, who can’t be vaccinated because he is under 12. She is uneasy about sending him to school in the fall for fear of exposure to the variant. She is reluctant to take him to birthday parties this summer knowing there’s a good likelihood he’ll be teased for wearing a mask.
A few yards away from LaCount and her son on the playground, a man fished in a still pond with his 10-month-old daughter in a backpack. Garrett Whiting, who works in construction, said he believes COVID is still being “blown out of proportion,” especially by the news media.
“They got everybody scared really, really fast,” said Whiting, slowly reeling in a sparkly blue lure from the water. “There’s no reason to stop living your life just because you’re scared of something.”
Whiting tested positive for COVID about three months earlier. He said he doesn’t plan to get vaccinated, nor does his wife. As for the baby on his back, he said he’s not sure whether they’ll have her vaccinated when regulators approve the shot for young children.
The delta variant is one of six “variants of concern” circulating in the U.S., according to the CDC, because the delta strain spreads more easily, might be more resistant to treatment and might be better at infecting vaccinated people than other variants.
The delta variant has raised alarms around the world. Parts of Australia have locked down again after health officials said the variant leapfrogged its way from an American aircrew to a birthday party where it infected all unvaccinated guests, and after it also jumped between shoppers in a “scarily fleeting” moment in which two people walked past each other in a mall. Israel reissued an indoor mask requirement after a spate of new cases linked to schoolchildren. A leading health official there said about a third of the 125 people who were infected were vaccinated, and most of the new infections were delta variant.
A rise in delta variant cases delayed the United Kingdom’s planned reopening in June. But public health officials have concluded after studying about 14,000 cases of the delta variant in that country that full vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalization. Studies around the world have made similar findings. There is also evidence the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the variant.
Los Angeles County recently recommended that residents resume wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, over concern about the delta variant. The World Health Organization is also urging vaccinated people to wear masks, though the CDC hasn’t changed its guidelines allowing vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks.
The variant arrived in Mesa County this spring, when it accounted for just 1% of all cases nationwide, said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health.
“We were winding down just like everyone else. We were down to less than five cases a day. I think we had about two people hospitalized at one point,” Kuhr said. “We felt as if we were out of the woods.”
He even signed off on Country Jam, which bills itself as the state’s “biggest country music party.”
But in early May, the delta variant appeared in a burst, with five cases among adults working for the school district.
“It started to hit the children, those that were not of the age to be vaccinated,” Kuhr said. “That was telling me that, you know, wearing masks in school was not providing the protection with this new variant that it had previously.”
The county then started to see breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated elderly residents in long-term care facilities. The hospitals began to fill once more. Nine vaccinated people died, seven of them since the delta variant’s arrival, though it’s still unclear whether the variant is to blame. All were at least 75 years old, and seven lived in long-term care facilities. Now, Kuhr estimates, “above 90%” of cases in the county are delta variant.
The county is seeing the same trend as the state: The vast majority of people testing positive for COVID, and people being hospitalized with it, are unvaccinated. “It’s a superspreader strain if there ever was one,” Eric Topol with the Scripps Research Institution told Scientific American. But he said people fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna shots “should not worry at all.” There is less information about the protection offered by Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.
Mesa County health officials considered canceling the music festival, but “it was really too late,” Kuhr said. After the announcement that the festival was on, about 23,000 people bought tickets.
Officials weighed banning alcohol or trying to get attendees a Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine in the weeks leading up to the festival. In the end, they settled on messaging: signs warning people online and at the venue that the area was a COVID hot spot.
According to CDC guidance, outdoor events were low risk. A sporting event at the end of May in Grand Junction that filled a baseball stadium had resulted in only one known case, which made Kuhr optimistic.
“We put messaging on Country Jam’s website, and then in their social media pages, saying, you know, ‘Mesa County’s a hot spot. Be prepared,’” Kuhr said.
A stormy Friday dampened concert attendance at Country Jam. But on the last day of the festival, the sun was out and throngs of cowboy boot-clad concertgoers stepped around prairie dog burrows and kicked up gray-yellow dust on the path to the venue entrance.
Many reveled in being able to attend a summertime event like an outdoor festival, taking it as another sign that the pandemic was waning.
“COVID is over in Colorado,” said Ryan Barkley, a college student from Durango who was playing beer pong in an inflatable pool at his campsite outside the gates.
That day, 39 people in the county were hospitalized with COVID, and a CDC investigative team had arrived just four days earlier.
Inside the gates, an open field was filled with stages, concession stands, and vendors selling cowboy hats, coffee mugs and hunting clothes — and crowds of people. Chelsea Sondgeroth and her 5-year-old daughter took in the scene.
“It’s just nice to see people’s faces again,” said Sondgeroth, who lives in Grand Junction and previously had COVID. She described it as one of the mildest illnesses she’s ever had, though her senses of taste and smell have not returned to normal. Watermelon tastes rotten to her, beer tasted like Windex for a while, and her daughter said Sondgeroth can’t smell certain flowers anymore.
Sondgeroth said she’s holding off on getting vaccinated until more research comes out.
Waiting in line at the daiquiri stand, Alicia Nix was one of the few people in sight wearing a mask. “I’ve gotten people that say, you know, ‘That stuff is over. Get over yourself and take that off,’” said Nix, who is vaccinated. “It isn’t over.”
Amid the music, beer and dancing, a bus turned into a mobile vaccine clinic was empty. A nurse on duty played Jenga with an Army National Guard soldier. Just six people of the thousands attending were vaccinated on the bus.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” Nix said from behind her blue surgical mask.
To the north: Wyoming town muddles through pandemic
Brandon Graves said COVID arrived in Wheatland the way new movies do in this High Plains farming town: months after hitting the big cities and without much fanfare.
“It kind of trickled in and it never really exploded here,” said Graves, a lifelong resident and mayor of the town of about 3,500, the largest in Platte County.
Many residents say the virus that causes COVID has felt more like an inconvenience imposed on them by outsiders than a public threat. For instance, utility bills came late because the company that prints them is in a city that was hit hard by COVID. And the town is stuck repairing and re-repairing one of its aging trash trucks because the ordered replacement has been delayed by more than a year because of a COVID-induced shortage in microchips.
Then there’s the “Colorado Navy,” the locals’ nickname for the parade of vehicles with boats in tow that cross the state line each summer. Their numbers swelled last year as people searched for lakes and campgrounds open during the pandemic, said Shawna Reichert, executive director of the Platte County Chamber of Commerce.
Campers were packed so tightly around Grayrocks Reservoir, a popular fishing spot outside of town, Reichert said, “it literally looked like a city.” The crowds trashed the place, and a rancher lost several cows. Plastic bags were found in their stomachs.
It’s no surprise many residents are lukewarm to the idea of COVID vaccines: As of July 6, about 29% of Platte County residents were fully vaccinated, according to the state health department. And Wyoming, a staunchly conservative state, had about 32% of residents fully vaccinated, giving it one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. Perhaps also not surprisingly, the state has one of the highest new case rates in the nation.
What might be surprising is that Wyoming’s neighbor to the south has recently experienced similar case spikes, too. Colorado is a Democratic-leaning state whose population is about 53% fully vaccinated, placing it in the top 15 states in vaccination rates. It also had the 12th-highest rate of new cases among states as of July 9, ranking a few states lower than Wyoming.
Within Colorado, one of the most vaccinated counties is San Miguel County, which, like Wyoming’s Platte County, has a population of a little over 8,000 people. Both counties entered June with high transmission rates and sustained them for several weeks straight, but their vaccination rates are inverses of each other: Fewer than a third of Platte County residents are fully vaccinated, while about a third of San Miguel County residents are not. The common thread in both places: pockets of unvaccinated residents.
Health officials are keeping a close eye on COVID hot spots that have emerged in recent weeks tied to low vaccination rates.
“One of the things that we’ve been sounding the alarm about is the need for hyper-local data,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The state could look fine and you can think, like, ‘No big deal, we’ve got this.’ But then when you drill down at the county level, you could be seeing a much different story.”
The county level might not even be granular enough to show true risk. Small upticks in cases can be meaningful even in sparsely populated counties — and not just because of the potential for transmission to spill across county or state lines.
“Small rises in cases in rural areas can have devastating consequences because, chances are, there’s fewer health care resources in those places in order to save lives,” she said. “There’s been good studies that show that, partially, the ability of the virus to kill people depends on the bandwidth in the health system to save people.”
After months of reporting few cases, the Platte County Public Health department in early June posted a warning on Facebook that 14 people had tested positive for COVID in the same number of days, and 12 ended up in the hospital.
That string of cases bumped Platte County into the “red zone” of high transmission rates. “Platte County contact tracing has shown that unvaccinated people are going to work and group gatherings while sick,” the post read.
Joan Ivaska, senior director of infection prevention for Banner Health, which runs a 25-bed hospital in Wheatland, confirmed that COVID patients were admitted throughout June, though she declined to say how many. The hospital has only two adult ICU beds.
She and other health officials continue to emphasize that better vaccine coverage is the only way to get back to normal.
The challenge, said Kim Deti, a spokesperson with the Wyoming health department, isn’t just the politicization of the COVID vaccines, which has turned many against them, though that is a factor. It’s also that many people have resumed activities and believe the pandemic is behind them.
“We’ve had relatively low levels of COVID-19 illnesses in most areas of the state for a while now, which affects threat perception,” Deti said. “There are many people working very hard and trying everything they can. Wyoming’s coverage rate is not for lack of effort.”
In San Miguel County, Colorado, people were fired up about getting shots from the outset. “Interest has been very, very impassioned since vaccines became widely available,” said county spokesperson Lindsey Mills.
San Miguel County hit President Joe Biden’s vaccination goal of getting at least one dose into 70% of adult residents weeks before July 4, the deadline the nation as a whole missed. Yet the county was experiencing a surge in COVID cases similar to its Wyoming counterpart. More than 460 days after Colorado declared COVID-19 a disaster emergency, San Miguel County recorded its first COVID death on June 14.
The reason? It turns out not everyone was as enthusiastic about the vaccines as San Miguel County’s high rates indicated. Numbers provided by the local health department show that on the county’s east side, home to the affluent ski resort community of Telluride, about 80% of eligible residents opted in. On the west side, what residents call the West End, only about half did. That left the county vulnerable to continued spread.
That east-west divide in San Miguel County is reflective of a preexisting cultural divide, according to Mike Bordogna, the county manager. The sparsely populated west side, which stretches to the Utah line, was historically the county breadbasket, growing crops and livestock that fed mining towns like Telluride, now known for skiing and its film and bluegrass festivals.
A KHN analysis of data provided by San Miguel County shows that, since the beginning of the pandemic, most of the county’s COVID cases were on the east side, where most residents live. But in May, the tables turned. While the west side of the county typically recorded fewer than 10% of the county’s cases over the first year of the pandemic, in May and June its share suddenly was more than 64%, aided by the arrival of the delta variant.
In late May, an unvaccinated woman in her late 70s living on the county’s West End caught the delta variant at a potluck following a funeral and died after a week in the hospital. Other unvaccinated funeral attendees caught the virus, too.
“Pretty much everybody that was there that was unvaccinated became sick after the fact — either tested positive or just became sick and didn’t test,” said Amanda Baltzley, contact tracing supervisor for San Miguel County Department of Public Health.
Sheila Grother, an EMT and contact tracer who works with Baltzley and has lived in the West End town of Norwood for more than 30 years, said she’s gotten nowhere trying to persuade people to get vaccinated — even though two vaccinated West End residents who contracted the delta variant around the same time as the woman who died, and were also over 70, recovered.
“I’ve been in people’s homes when they’re at their worst and I’ve been with them on their worst possible days,” she said. “I thought at one time that people, you know, trusted my judgment to some degree, and I think some do, but there are those that just — they’re not going to get the damn vaccine.”
But county leaders are holding out hope that some will have a change of heart. Bordogna said health officials are working on plans to set up surreptitious vaccination stations at the upcoming county fair and rodeo to make it easy for people to get inoculated without worrying about being spotted. The goal is to create a system in which attendees can, for example, tell a family member or friend they were heading for the bathroom and get a shot instead.
Back in Wheatland, few people were aware of the hospitalizations that happened in early June. Alice Wichert, who manages the Motel 6 in town, suspects most residents probably weren’t aware of a spike in cases at all.
“There wasn’t really anybody here who kind of had a strong fear of it,” she said. “We just pretty much went on with life.”
But that wasn’t the case for one temporary motel resident. Angela Brixius is a lab technician from Nebraska working a stint at the local hospital where, among other things, she processes COVID tests and regularly encounters patients convinced COVID is a hoax.
“I worry about people that aren’t vaccinated who are out and about who talk to everybody that they meet about how this is not real,” Brixius said. “I meet people at the hospital: ‘I don’t need a swab. I don’t have COVID. It’s not real.’”
“People are still dying of COVID,” she said. “It’s still going on, and it should be done,” said Brixius, before heading out the door for food and fresh air before another 3 p.m.-to-midnight shift in the lab.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
Kaiser Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.