COVID-19 is here to stay — now what?
Chris Lindley, a public health expert with Vail Health, gives advice on adapting to our new reality and maintaining physical and mental health to avoid serious COVID-19 illness
New data and surges in delta variant infections across the country point to the conclusion that COVID-19 is here to stay, and a local public health expert sees this unfortunate reality as a call to action for the Eagle County community to improve its overall health.
“Most of what we see happening across the country is this hope that it’s going to disappear — that this is the last wave or we’re going to have the magic vaccine or magic pill that saves us, and I just want to be very, very clear that I don’t believe that is going to present itself anytime soon,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health who previously worked as the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment.
The closest thing that we have to a “magic pill” — COVID-19 vaccines — are “extremely effective at preventing serious illness and death,” Lindley said, and he recommended that everyone get vaccinated if they have not already done so. Still, though, the vaccines are not able to deliver us a world free of COVID-19-related concerns as many of us may have hoped, he said.
“We kind of set everybody up for this 200-meter race, 400-meter race,” he said. “If we just get around the corner — next month, next season — we’re going to be fine, but what we have not said is ‘Hey, this isn’t a marathon. This is an ultra-marathon. We’re going to be at it for a long, long, long time so find a pace that’s consistent.”
Today, the delta variant poses a new risk to our highly-vaccinated community — 74% vaccinated to be exact — with infections rising over the month of August to an average of 25 new cases identified each day in the week leading up to Aug. 31.
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COVID-19 will likely remain at the forefront of our public health concerns for the foreseeable future, Lindley said. It will continue to keep parents up at night and wreak havoc on families. It will continue to complicate travel plans, disrupt work, and prompt that uncomfortable dance when you’re not sure whether an acquaintance wants to hug you or not. So, what do we do about it?
For the sake of moving into the acceptance phase, Lindley encouraged people to reshape the way that they think about COVID-19 from a temporary madness to a part of our reality — an enduring challenge that calls for us to band together and find a new way forward.
“We can’t live our lives like we have the last 18 months where we have this, ‘Oh well, we’ll just shut it down for a few months and let it pass and then we’ll slowly open,’” Lindley said. “Those days, I think, are over in this country. I don’t think anybody wants to do that because we’ve learned the social, economic impacts of shutting things down.”
Getting vaccinated and getting a third vaccine dose when it is your time to do so is crucial, Lindley said. But beyond that, he urged people to focus on getting as healthy as they can. Increasing overall public health, mentally and physically, is one of our best defenses against COVID-19, he said.
Reducing risk of severe COVID-19 illness through physical health
The biggest COVID-19 risk factors identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are age and underlying health conditions.
“We can’t affect our age. None of us can turn back the clocks,” Lindley said. “But we can all affect our overall health.”
Many of the underlying health conditions identified by the CDC to increase risk of severe COVID-19 illness are preventable, lifestyle-based conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
A CDC study of 540,667 adults hospitalized with COVID-19 found that 94.9% had at least one underlying medical condition with hypertension, obesity and diabetes being among the “strongest risk factors for severe COVID-19 illness.”
There are exceptions to this, of course, but “on a population-based level, if we are healthier, we’re going to have better population-based outcomes.” Lindley said.
This fact raises the stakes and deepens health inequities in our community as people with poor health disproportionately experience severe COVID-19 illness, “long-COVID“ and death, Lindley said.
Now is the time to schedule preventative health care visits and check-ups with your primary care provider, he said. Now is the time to take that nutrition class, buy more fresh food, join the local recreational soccer league or go mountain biking with the family.
“We know being healthy is going to significantly reduce the effects of that disease for the majority of population so, now more than ever, I hope people really invest in their health, nutrition, physical activity, mental health, just whatever they can do to be as healthy as they can,” he said. “We have to live with this and might as well come to the game ready versus unprepared.”
Maintaining our mental health
Now is also the time to be strengthening our mental health, Lindley said.
“We know for sure that our physical health is tied directly to our mental health,” he said. “If you’re stressed out, your natural defenses are lowered, right? You’re producing more cortisol and different types of other hormones that make you more susceptible and run down to get sick. So just being in a better, healthy mindset is a protective measure for health.”
The public health community is only now fully understanding just how impactful the pandemic has been on our collective mental health, and just how important access to mental health resources will be moving forward, said Lindley, who also serves as the Executive Director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
“The impact COVID-19 is having on our mental health appears to be as significant if not more significant than on the physical health side,” he said. “We have literally changed the way we live, the way we do business, the way we work to protect us physically. We have, as a country, not done anything to change how we care for our mental health living in this new environment.”
Currently, there are as many patients being admitted into Vail Health Hospital for substance abuse issues as there are for COVID-19 infections, Lindley said.
Fortunately, there are many resources and service providers in Eagle County that help make physical and mental health care more accessible to everyone in the community.
Olivia’s Fund provides free behavioral health care for anyone in need through Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and a network of other public and private providers with a variety of expertise, Lindley said. The services covered by Olivia’s Fund include talk therapy as well as psychiatric care, medication management and any other behavioral health services needed.
For physical health and wellness, Eagle County also has Colorado Mountain Medical and Mountain Family Health Clinic, which offers sliding scale fees for anyone without medical insurance.
The MIRA Bus, a traveling RV that brings public health resources directly into under-resourced communities, is now offering comprehensive wellness screenings from blood panels to psychological evaluations along with referrals for additional care if needed. The bus’s schedule can be found at sites.google.com/eaglecounty.us/mira/home.
Supporting our youth
Another lesson learned from our first 18 months living with COVID-19 was the importance of keeping schools open for the social, emotional, and mental health of children and young people, Lindley said.
“Humans are social creatures and I think we have all seen over the past 18 months just how important that is for our children,” Catherine Jarnot and Matthew Miano of Eagle County School District said in a joint statement Tuesday. “Child development relies on social interaction. Children learn cooperation, empathy, and kindness by being around others.”
“Our focus remains keeping our students in class [five] days a week for in-person instruction so that they get the socialization that they need,” the statement continues.
Children are often more perceptive than we give them credit for, and the past year and a half hasn’t exactly been the easiest way to spend your formative years, said Bratzo Horruitiner, the executive director of My Future Pathways.
My Future Pathways strives to improve the lives of the valley’s youth, with a focus on providing equal opportunity to local Latino youth, through three main areas — social and emotional health, academics and wellness — and this mission has become even more crucial due to COVID-19.
Nationally, about 56% percent of Latino students and 32% of white students took care of someone in their family for most or part of the day during the shutdowns associated with the pandemic, Horruitiner said.
“The stressors are huge,” Horruitiner said. “About 50% of Latino students and 72% of white students were able to access their online schoolwork almost all the time so we’re missing 50% of the Latinos and around 28% of the white students getting access to their work.”
With younger and younger kids becoming infected with COVID-19 due to the new delta variant, real fears are piled on top of these very real stressors making for a challenging time in the mental health of our young people, he said.
“I talked to my son, who is 12 … he looked at me the other day and said, ‘Dad, I don’t know what I’m going to do if you die,’” Horruitiner said. “This generation is growing up with that fear.”
Supporting our youth in adapting to a new reality living with COVID-19 looks a lot like supporting our own health, Lindley said. It’s about eating well, staying active and healthy and checking in on your mental health.
My Future Pathways is leveling the playing field when it comes to accessing fun ways to stay healthy and engaged, providing local low-income youth and their families with free exercise classes from boxing to yoga to Zumba. The nonprofit is offering a health and nutrition class and organizing recreational basketball and soccer leagues, Horruitiner said.
The organization’s facilities in Edwards and Gypsum also offer a fun place to hang out and socialize safely after school with a network of peers and mentors to help anyone who may be struggling in this time, he said.
“We need to remain hopeful,” Horruitiner said. “As a community, as humans, as a nation, we can overcome issues and reiterate that positive message — it is very important for our kids to hear right now.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org