Eagle County keeps COVID-19 deaths well below initial fears one year into pandemic
Local health officials feared COVID-19 would claim 40 local residents; Masks, medical care and testing reduced that number as locals now flock to vaccination clinics
One year ago, COVID-19 hit hard in Eagle County, leaving local health officials grappling with what the global pandemic would mean to the local population.
Within a couple of weeks, they were sharing those thoughts with residents and their conclusions were startling.
Today, Chris Lindley’s title at Vail Health is chief population health officer. But back on May 18, 2020, when the Vail Daily ran a story detailing his COVID-19 predictions, Lindley had been assigned to head up Vail Health’s COVID-19 task force. He began that work in January 2020, armed with a combination of education and experience — master’s of public health, a master’s in the science of epidemiology and a master’s of business administration. He had served as unit commander and environmental science officer of preventive medicine in the 793rd Medical Detachment of the United States Army Medical Reserves.
When Lindley did the initial local COVID-19 math, his data was sobering.
After an aggressive local testing program last spring, Eagle County health officials were seeing a lower local COVID-19 mortality rate than the rest of the U.S. National mortality figures at the time were still in the 5% to 6% range — they have since dropped to 1.8% — but Eagle County’s mortality rate was 0.15%. But by taking that mortality rate, combined with the assumption than 90% of the local population was still susceptible to the virus, Lindley extrapolated an actual number of predicted COVID-19 deaths over the course of an expected 18 to 24 month pandemic. A jarring number emerged.
“We could see 40 more deaths in our community over the next 18 to 24 months. That is the math. That is the epidemiology,” Lindley noted. “This is what an infectious disease looks like. People get sick and people die.”
When he got to that point in his presentation, people usually got very quiet.
“Before this is all over, we may all personally know someone who has died from COVID-19. That is what happened in 1918 (during the Spanish flu pandemic),” Lindley said.
Looking at those predictions almost a year later, Eagle County has lost a total of 22 residents — about half the impact Lindley initially predicted. He was spot-on correct about the personal impact of COVID-19, however. The valley has lost long-time and well-known neighbors. Today, Lindley is very grateful that his initial mortality prediction was inflated.
“Great things have taken place,” Lindley noted. “Masks turned out to be the biggest public tool in this. I just wish we had known that sooner.”
During the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, the prevention focus was on what you touched not what you breathed. The initial warnings focused on hand-washing and sanitizing items brought into the home. But by early April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advised wearing a mask when leaving home.
“That was well into the pandemic. It wasn’t our first strategy,” Lindley said. “We all should have moved faster on that for sure, looking at it in hindsight.”
Once mask wearing became more universal, Lindley noted COVID-19 transmission rates began to decline. What’s more, mask wearing virtually eliminated flu season this year, he added.
For the general public, masks were a COVID-19 game-changer. But they were only one factor that helped reduce deaths, Lindley stressed.
Off the ventilators
Medical treatment for severe COVID-19 patients has evolved over the past year, Lindley continued. Initially, seriously ill patients were routinely placed on ventilators.
“Now they do everything they can not to put people on ventilators,” Lindley said.
Hospitals have new patient positioning and flipping protocols, for example.
“The treatment and care for COVID patients has really improved,” Lindley said. “We also got really smart about caring for the most vulnerable populations.”
Lindley pointed to the experiences at Castle Peak Senior Life to illustrate his point. While the senior care facility in Eagle did experience two COVID-19 outbreaks this year, only one resident died at the center. That’s in stark contrast to the rest of the nation when senior care facilities have been hard hit by the pandemic.
Testing and healthy people
As noted earlier, rigorous testing services have operated in Eagle County throughout the pandemic. That’s been a vital part of the local system, Lindley said.
“When people can get tested and find out if they have COVID, they make smarter choices,” he said.
Residents understood they shouldn’t visit grandma or hang out with immune compromised friends if they tested positive, he noted.
And finally, Lindley said that as a general population, Eagle County was healthier headed into the pandemic. That meant residents were better positioned to fight the virus.
“We know this disease affects people with underlying health conditions,” Lindley explained. “We are a very healthy community. We pride ourselves in our outdoor lifestyle and we have high access to health services in this valley.”
When Lindley made his predictions last spring, no one knew when a COVID-19 vaccine would become available.
“The vaccine development was extraordinary,” he said. “It will probably go down in history as one of the most important advancements in medicine.”
“But at that point (back in May) we still had to live with the situation for another six months,” he continued. “Today, I believe in 60 days everyone who wants a vaccine will have the opportunity to get one.”
More than 25,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Eagle County. Last week alone, nearly 6,500 people were inoculated locally with doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“Those people are protected now. They are not going to end up in the hospital and they are not going to die from COVID-19,” Lindley said.
Looking back on the year-long battle against COVID-19, Lindley is proud of the local vaccination partnership between Vail Health and Eagle County Public Health.
“It’s all of us working together, literally every day, to get as much vaccine as we can into this community and deliver it as quickly as we can,” he said.
Another line from Lindley’s interview last spring stands out today, a year after the pandemic hit Eagle County.
“More people will be getting poor than getting sick,” Lindley said last May.
“It has been a challenging year for all of us but for some people more than others because of the businesses they own or the career paths they were on,” he noted.
“All of us need to remember what life was like 13 months ago. (When it is safe), we need to go out and support the great institutions that are here. If those businesses are still around today, we need to make sure they are around in another year,” he said.
COVID-19 brought global sickness, death and economic pain — and Eagle County hasn’t been immune from those losses. But in all that darkness, Lindley said he was also inspired by the efforts of so many different parts of the community — health care providers, businesses, governments and schools to name a few.
“This year has been the most important demonstration ever of what this community can do when it comes together,” he concluded.
Beginning Monday, March 15, the Vail Daily will explore the impacts and aftermaths of the COVID-19 pandemic on Eagle County in a seven-part series called Shining Through.