‘Let’s go live:’ Eagle County’s COVID-19 collaboration team reflects on the yearlong battle
With public health order lifted, local entities celebrate successes, focus on post-pandemic future
When they began their final COVID-19 Community Conversation Thursday, the seven members of a panel representing various Eagle County institutions were all wearing masks.
Then, at the direction of Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who moderated the session, they all removed the masks in unison and tossed them in the air. It was a celebration marking the conclusion of Eagle County’s COVID-19 emergency declaration and public health order.
There was one exception to the party. Eagle County Schools Superintendent Phil Qualman remained masked in solidarity with the staff members and students who will continue wearing facial coverings through the end of the 2020-21 school year. “All year I have told them anything I ask you to do, I will do also,” Qualman explained.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the county has hosted community sessions — livestreamed and recorded at ecgtv.com, and at Facebook.com/OneValleyVoice, and in Spanish at Facebook.com/MiSaludMiCharco — to share information with the public about disease trends, health orders and vaccination strategy. But this week’s session was markedly different. Instead of a focus on information, it was an exercise in reflection. The session’s title — Back to Better — reflected that theme.
“We are in a very good place right now,” said Eagle County Director of Public Health and Environment Heath Harmon. “But we still have some time where we are going to be battling this virus.”
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been the game-changer, Harmon said. The community’s current vaccination rate is 62%, which has surpassed the county’s initial goal. But that number should climb in the coming weeks as vaccines are approved for use for children age 12 and older.
“The safest thing we can do to protect our community is to get a vaccination,” Harmon said. “Disease rates are in a great place now and we are looking forward to a more normal summer.”
As they reflected on Eagle County’s response to COVID-19, all of the panelists cited the importance of the local collaborative effort.
“This collaboration you hear about … it is our community’s spirit,” Vail Valley Partnership Executive Director Chris Romer said. “It is authentic. We weren’t trying to building something from scratch.”
Because government entities, the business community, local schools, Vail Health, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and other institutions were already working together, Romer said the county had a deft COVID-19 response. “It allowed us to be a step or three ahead of those who struggled to build that infrastructure.”
Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron delivered weekly COVID-19 reports to the county commissioners. He noted those reports reflected the work of the larger community group that met weekly, or even more frequently, to develop policy based on local data. Other panelists also spoke to those efforts.
“These people (the panel participants) are my COVID co-workers,” Basalt Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kris Mattera said. “Everyone worked so hard to work together.”
“We could be incredibly nimble because all the decision makers were in the room,” said Casey Wolfington, the community behavioral health director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
While they addressed the challenges COVID-19 brought, various community organizations have embraced techniques that will continue post-pandemic. For example, Scherr noted that county government used technology to expand opportunities for participation in the public review process.
Chris Lindley, chief population Health Officer for Vail Health, said COVID-19 freed organizations to quickly respond to developing conditions. He noted his biggest worry is that post-COVID-19, local entities will stop pursuing timely, 75% responses while they hold out for 100% solutions. Nimble actions may mean early mistakes, but they also give organizations the opportunity to learn and move forward, Lindley said.
“Hopefully we can keep this quick mindset if we have an idea,” Lindley said.
Romer concurred, noting the key was to act with good intent and in a spirit of creativity and problem-solving. And with a stated mission, Barron added.
“We hear about post traumatic stress. There is also post traumatic growth. That is the part I am most looking forward to,” Mattera said.
Equity issues aren’t new to Eagle County, but the pandemic and the aftermath of national attention focused on the George Floyd case brought them into sharp relief.
“More than 30% of our community is Spanish speaking. I think one of the things we did better as a community this year was communications,” Lindley said. “We have to continue that.”
Because it was vital to spread the word about the public health order and vaccination opportunities and other COVID-19 topics, written materials and public meetings included both English and Spanish communication.
“We took the services to that community,” Lindley added, noting the MIRA bus and other community groups were instrumental in the effort. “Going forward, I hope all of us will continue to speak the languages the community speaks.”
Inequity is one of the largest challenges public health faces, Harmon noted. “We need to acknowledge that the systems we currently have aren’t working for a large portion of our community and that’s not right, period,” he said.
COVID-19 did bring some equity gains, however. Vail Health launched Olivia’s Fund, which offers free behavioral health counseling services, months earlier than initially planned. Lindley noted success markers for COVID-19 disease trends — lower hospitalizations, expansive testing services, high vaccination rates — were loss leaders for Vail Health but were vitally important for the community.
Eight more days
The panelists agreed that one of the biggest local COVID-19 battles was waged in local schools, which remained open throughout the 2020-21 academic year. It wasn’t easy, Qualman said. There were many classroom and activity-related COVID-19 quarantines over the past nine months.
“What we were able to do this year, keeping our schools open, wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of grace from our students, parents and staff members,” Qualman said. “We asked a lot from a lot of different people.”
He noted there are eight days left in the current school year and that everyone is ready for summer. Beyond that, he noted that the local school community is looking to a return to a full-time, five-day-a-week schedule.
“We have made preparations for next year with the most significant increase in staffing our district has made in a long time,” Qualman said. “A strong emphasis for 2021-22 will be on student voice. We have to take the time to value students’ voices and value their lived experience.”
At the conclusion of the session, the members all shared COVID-19 terms they don’t ever want to use again. The larger community likely supports that goal because we have also heard these overused phrases:
- New normal
- Public health order
- An abundance of caution
- “You’re on mute”
With that moment of shared laughter, Scherr offered his advice for the summer of 2021 and beyond.
“Let’s go live,” Scherr said.