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Eagle County close to century mark on confirmed COVID-19 cases, but infections likely much higher

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March 25, 2020, 9:40 am
COVID-19 testing in Gypsum (Vail Health photo).

Eagle County now has 96 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the latest statistics from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday afternoon. After leading the state in the early stages of the outbreak, the county is now third on the state list behind the much more populous counties of Denver (176) and El Paso (106). Overall, the state has 912 cases.

Local health officials suggest infection numbers in Eagle County are actually much higher but remain dramatically undetected due to the lack of testing – perhaps into the thousands for a county with an overall population of just under 55,000 people. Vail Health hospital only has 53 beds.

And community advocates are now concerned the outbreak may be spreading in the most densely populated parts of the county such as the Eagle River Village mobile home park in Edwards. Please donate to the Eagle Valley Community Foundation’s food bank, The Community Market, if you can. Demand is up 300% since the pandemic began. Also consider donating to the Salvation Army Vail.

Editor’s note: Here’s a re-posted version of an article than ran on the front page of the Colorado Springs Gazette on Tuesday, March 24:

In Vail, workers bear brunt of global COVID-19 outbreak

Risk-takers and outdoor-lovers confined by virus that hit ski towns first

VAIL, Colo. – On Tuesday, March 10, Steph Littlefield, felt lightheaded, with pressure in her head that made her think one of her recurring earaches was coming on. Still, she went to work in the Avon-based finance office of Vail’s famed Steadman Clinic, where superstar athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Joe Montana and John Elway have come for surgeries over the years.

Steph Littlefield

The next day the 27-year-old called in sick with a dry cough, shortness of breath and fever of 101 Fahrenheit. Aware of the growing COVID-19 outbreak in surrounding Eagle County, where the first case of the virus was confirmed on March 6, Littlefield called her doctor first and was told to report to a respiratory clinic in Vail, where she was quickly isolated and swabbed.

Littlefield tested negative for the flu and strep and was sent home, ordered to self-isolate and wait for her COVID-19 test. Not a problem, she says, since for the next two days she was wracked by chills, body aches and waves of nausea. Then on Saturday, March 14, which just happened to be the last day Vail and nearby Beaver Creek were open for skiing, Littlefield woke up “feeling totally fine,” grabbed her fly rod and went fishing in the river right by her house.

On Sunday, March 15, she woke up and was “right back in the hole” of fever, chills and aches, and then on Monday – five days after first being swabbed – state health officials informed her she had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s important if you aren’t feeling good, even if you start to feel better and as antsy as we are to get back to our daily routine and do the things we love, it’s putting others at risk, and those are the people we’ve got to think about,” Littlefield said of her fly-fishing foray. “Even if I was by myself, I wasn’t around anybody else, and the trout don’t get coronavirus …”

On Sunday, March 22, still isolated in her home, Littlefield emailed she’s been cleared by her doctor for COVID-19 but likely developed pneumonia and has been coughing up blood the last few days. She’s says she’ll probably have to be on supplemental oxygen for a couple of months.

Littlefield is part of a wave of COVID-19 infections in Eagle County – an early Colorado hot spot for the disease — where droves of snow riders from around the country and in fact the world have been descending all ski season, packing bars, partying at concerts and sporting events like the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in late February and spring-break skiing till the bitter end. Pretty much the opposite of social distancing.

It was a brutal end to the ski season – mid-March peak season with still above-average snow conditions – that Vail Mayor Dave “Bone” Chapin admits, wearing his barkeep hat as a partner in Vendettas bar and restaurant, he wasn’t so sure about. Now, infected with the virus himself and in isolation at home, he knows it was the right call.

Vail Mayor Dave Chapin
Vail Mayor Dave Chapin

“I do think it was the right decision, because people come here from all over the world, and I do believe they would’ve continued to come,” Chapin said. “Skiers are a hardy group. We are, by nature, some would say, risk-takers.”

As of Monday, Eagle County has 92 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a population of just under 55,000 — although due to the lack of testing, health officials say the true number is unknown and infections likely number in the thousands. That represented about 12.7% of the state’s overall 720 cases and ranked second only to Denver with 148 confirmed cases. Over the weekend, the first Eagle County resident, 64-year-old Rod Powell, died from the disease in a Denver ICU.

The Vail Valley is populated by people who come here to ski, climb mountains, run rivers, mountain bike and work their asses off during an intense five-month winter season that accounts for the vast majority of the annual revenues in the local economy. People work hard, party hard and play even harder in the surrounding mountains. From knee injuries to liver problems to shattered collarbones, many Vail-area residents are simultaneously blessed by their surroundings but also in some ways battered, broken and broke due to the lifestyle and insane cost of living.

Mayor Chapin, 61, had a massive heart attack six years ago and now has a pacemaker and a defibrillator implanted in his chest. And avid skier still, he’s recovering nicely from COVID-19, but he knows others – like his friend Rod Powell, a beloved après-ski musician and realtor – haven’t be so lucky.

“That’s one of the issues right now is that a lot of people don’t think they’re COVID-19 material, and we need to get by that, and people need to understand that everybody’s vulnerable here,” Chapin said. “At first this was projected as an older individual’s problem, and we’re coming to find out that it can affect all demographics and … bring up an underlying health situation that somebody might not be aware of, and then all of a sudden that spiral of going downhill is dramatically increased.”

The numbers as of Sunday bear that out, with just 29% of the state’s 571 victims 60 or over and 71% under the age of 60. Littlefield, at 27, is living proof of Chapin’s warning to Vail’s younger, seemingly invulnerable ski-bum demographic. Vail Health President and CEO Will Cook issued a dire warning that the local 56-bed hospital may soon be overwhelmed by the young and old.

Littlefield is immuno-compromised because of stage-four endometriosis two years ago (hence those recurring earaches), but otherwise considers herself a strong person who loves the Colorado mountains. Still, as a health care worker, albeit in finance, she knows how tenuous the situation is at the local hospital.

“My body’s fought off so many different things and I’ve gone through a lot health-wise, but the last thing I want is to end up [in the hospital] or put anybody in danger to where they would be in that situation, because that’s just devastating, it’s scary,” Littlefield said, pleading with skiers swarming Loveland Pass and bikers headed to Utah. “Everyone’s going to Moab, and, I’m like, ‘You guys realize you’re putting them at such risk because they have three ventilators?’ Just stay home.”

Vail on March 14.

Neither Littlefield nor Chapin know where or how they contracted the virus, and the mayor says it’s not helpful at this point to second-guess when Vail should have shut down to prevent further spread. He’s seen the reports out of Mexico that wealthy businessmen, second homeowners and visitors attending the Burton event, with superstar Olympians like Shaun White also on hand, are now spreading the disease south of the border.

“First of all, no one’s to blame for this,” Chapin said. “Blaming anybody or blaming anything or blaming any event is just really not where the focus should be. We can’t pinpoint what was ground zero, who was patient zero. Everybody has a theory about it, but this just isn’t the time for those types of theories.”

Hugo Ceron Anaya, the director, Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the author of “Privilege at Play: Class, Race, Gender, and Golf in Mexico”, wrote in an email that there is a certain irony in the virus spreading from Vail to his home country of Mexico.

“[The] articles mentioned Vail, but no one has picked up on the irony that while [President Donald] Trump excludes poor migrants on the argument that they will bring the virus to the U.S., wealthy folks are the ones globally circulating the disease,” Anaya wrote. “This seems to fit well the overall perception of wealth, in the U.S. and Mexico, associated with a set of positive traits, while poverty is frequently associated with the opposing set of traits.”

Chapin said that sort of discussion isn’t helpful now, and that the virus knows no borders and makes no distinctions based on class, race or age.

“That type of rhetoric right now is just not where we need to be going,” Chapin said. “Our rhetoric right now needs to be one of spreading the message to be calm, be rational, take care of your neighbor, check on your neighbor, check on your family members. That’s where we need to have the focus right now. This is a humanitarian mission now.”

To that end, Chapin is focused on economic recovery for the working class of Eagle County and taking care of the most vulnerable. He said on Monday he would donate to the Eagle Valley Community Foundation, which runs the Community Market food bank and has seen a 300% spike in demand. From the immigrant workers in the Eagle River Village mobile home park (more than 2,000 people in 381 trailers) to the resort workers packed five or six to a two-bedroom condo, Chapin says those are the folks who need help right now.

“I think if people understood the humanitarian effect that this has had, when you see a family come pulling up [to the food bank] and it’s maybe the mom or dad or both and the two little kids and you know that that may be the only food they’re going to get that whole day, if that doesn’t a tug on your heartstrings, I don’t know what to tell you,” Chapin said.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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