Eagle’s County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case arrived exactly 12 months ago on March 6, just one day after Colorado’s first case was discovered in neighboring Summit County.
But it’s clear that the virus was here and spreading much earlier than that, based on extensive interviews with health care workers and officials from Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical.
“We had COVID in this community in February. We had COVID all over the United States in February. We just didn’t have the ability to identify it,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health who has spearheaded the hospital’s COVID-19 response since the start. “The testing was not in place until March to identify a case at all in the country, let alone in this valley. And so once we started looking for COVID in early March, we found it right away.”
The state’s first confirmed case was a California man in his 30s who’d recently been to Italy and had come to Summit County to ski. He skied in Vail in the days before entering a medical facility on the other side of the pass and tested positive for the virus that would quickly alter every facet of life in the state over the next year.
Looking back, it’s no surprise that Eagle County quickly become one of the hottest spots in the state, and a global transmission zone, considering the visitors it attracts from all over the world.
Eagle County’s first confirmed case was an Australian woman in her 50s who wrote about her experience after returning home. Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the former Eagle County commissioner who is now the state’s top public health official as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has said that the virus was likely circulating here as early as January.
Just four days after Eagle County confirmed its first case, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency. On March 12, county public health officials said it was clear that community transmission was taking place — meaning people were contracting the virus that hadn’t traveled abroad and were unaware of how they might have gotten it. A day later, local schools shut down to slow the spread, a move that became permanent for the rest of the spring semester.
The following day, Saturday, March 14, Vail Resorts made the decision to temporarily shutter all 34 of its North American resorts and Polis ordered Colorado’s ski resorts closed for a week.
The closures, which sent the valley’s tourism-based economy into free fall during one of the busiest months of the year, became permanent as it became obvious that the virus was here to stay.
Planning and adjusting on the fly
Vail Health had prepared better than most hospitals around the country by stockpiling personal protective equipment in January before global supplies were depleted. It also launched a system-wide task force to tackle the logistical challenges of a pandemic. But the speed at which the virus spread, and roadblocks that quickly arose — from a severe shortage of tests, and state and private labs quickly getting overwhelmed — forced the local health care system to innovate on the fly and find local solutions to national and statewide problems.
In hindsight, health care workers said there was plenty that could have been done different in the weeks and months that followed, although so little was known about the virus when it first showed up. The world was a different place.
“We probably should have started masking in February, just knowing that travel across the world from this place in China that had a big outbreak of a highly infectious disease is going to spread throughout the world,” Lindley said. “That’s our new reality with international travel is anything that takes place anywhere else in the world is within 48 hours a direct threat to us.”
Caitlyn Ngam, an infection preventionist with Vail Health, said pandemic preparedness is something that’s in her job description, but it has always been a sidebar to her day-to-day work. She described a global pandemic as her own “Super Bowl” — though talking about and preparing for such a thing with hypotheticals is a lot different than actually facing one in real-time.
“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” she said. “But for something to spread that quickly, we knew that it was something different and that we would be kind of off and running from that point.”
Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients, said the excitement of trying to identify the first patients in the county with COVID-19 symptoms from those coming into the ER who were “well worried” quickly faded as it became clear just how fast the virus was spreading.
“I was really the point guy,” he said. “We had screeners at the door and they would get a possible COVID situation and then my phone would ring and I would go and spend my time out in the parking lot. I would just sort through them and see who had to be seen in the ER and who could be seen elsewhere.”
Stephen said he got so good at the sorting process that he almost didn’t need the rapid-read thermometer and the pulse oximeter he used, among other tools, to identify patients with severe virus cases. He said he could almost sense if a patient needed to be admitted by having them pull down their mask.
“I saw so many people and screened so many people,” he said.
The peak, Stephen said, was March 14, the same day the resorts shut down. That’s when he said the ER admitted 16 patients and “probably turned just as many away.”
Stephen himself now suspects that he got the virus in February while traveling from his native Scotland back to the valley, but had no clue at the time that his symptoms could be tied to a respiratory virus that started in China.
One common goal
As the days and weeks wore on, and the pandemic settled in, health care workers described marathon days focused on one thing: protecting their community.
Fears and doubts were rampant, but they were secondary to the job at hand.
Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
“They showed up for work and got it done,” he said. “… They’re team players, the best team in the land. You could have called in sick. You could have asked not to do it. But not a single one of them did that. We rose to the challenge. We were resilient and we stayed here for the community and took care of them.”
That protection came in many forms, from creating the state’s first drive-through testing facility to implementing a variety of new safety protocols in facilities up and down the valley to completely revamping local clinics to keep potential COVID-19 patients in one place away from other patients. There was also the months-long initiative from Vail Health to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly to avoid the backlogs that plagued the county and the state over the spring and summer, a push that finally bore fruit this fall.
And, as scientists worked around the globe to develop vaccines against the virus, hospital workers and public health officials prepped for the day the first shipment would arrive.
All of that work in 12 months, with Eagle County avoiding the worst of the state’s restrictions by never dipping into Level Red, has paid off.
The county has seen 5,163 confirmed cases of the virus. It has done 49,232 tests. Twenty community members have died — a number much lower than original projections. And since the first vaccine shots were administered in late December, more than 25,300 total doses of vaccine have been administered.
The fog of the pandemic is lifting.
“I think by May things are going to look amazing,“ Lindley said. ”The sun’s going to be out, it’s going to be warming up. And we’re going to be thinking about great community events, concerts, music in the park. I think all that’s going to start coming back this summer in a big way. And I’m excited just to see all our old friends hanging out together, relaxing, and starting to come back together in a non-physically distanced manner. OK, with more hugs. I see lots of hugs this summer.“
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at email@example.com.