Editor’s Note: This story is a collaboration between Aspen Public Radio and Aspen Journalism and is the second in a two-part series exploring the impact of COVID-19 in six West Slope counties. Part one examined how different initial responses were across the six counties.
The impact of the pandemic varied widely on the western slope, particularly between mountain communities with higher infection rates but lower death rates and western counties, which had fewer cases but higher death rates.
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, health professionals across Westhang faced major, unprecedented challenges as they worked to find solutions while the science was still new and information could change by the day.
However, in December 2020 there was a game changer: COVID-19 vaccines.
Now these often rural communities had access to a pharmaceutical tool to fight the virus.
However, there were challenges in getting these vaccines to the people who needed them.
And that shows in the death rates of different counties.
An analysis of pandemic data from six Western Slope counties — Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison, Mesa, and Delta — conducted by Aspen Journalism and Aspen Public Radio shows that the counties that host resort towns had the first Cases occurred, higher infection rates but recorded lower death rates, while the counties with lower elevations recorded comparatively fewer cases but higher death rates.
Delta County has reported about 6,700 cases and more than 140 COVID-19 deaths since 2020, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). The death rate is 10 times that of Pitkin County and twice the state average.
But Delta County had one of the lowest case rates in the region — nearly two times lower than Pitkin.
Mountain communities – which have continued to see many tourists even during the pandemic – have some of the highest case rates in the state. But they counted very few deaths — some of the few in Colorado.
Although the cumulative number of deaths per capita in Eagle, Pitkin, and Gunnison counties has steadily increased over the past two years without large spikes, Mesa and Delta counties have seen their death rates surge in fatal waves.
From November 4, 2020 to February 4, 2021, Delta County’s death rate has multiplied by nearly 20, increasing from 9.6 per 100,000 to 189.3 per 100,000. This equates to 56 new deaths.
“We definitely saw deaths in the long-term care facilities, and that was before vaccines were available,” said Pat Sullivan, a registered nurse with the Delta County Health Department. “So you look at risk factors — the very old and of course those people had some chronic conditions and there were people who were exposed and didn’t know they were exposed and had underlying health issues.”
About a year later, during the Delta variant wave and after vaccines became available, the county’s fall case fatality rate still rose nearly 44%, from 272.7 per 100,000 on October 15, 2021 to 391.5 per 100,000 on October 15, 2021 December 15, 2021.
This means that between mid-October and mid-December 2021, 37 people died with COVID-19.
Vaccination helped prevent further COVID deaths
Sullivan believes low vaccination rates played a role in Delta County’s high death toll.
“There were some individuals who unfortunately suffered because they just didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was,” she said. “And if you were a leader in the community, other people followed your example and may have suffered as well.”
Mesa County followed the same pattern but over a longer period of time, with additional deaths later occurring in December 2021. From mid-October 2021 to mid-January, the county’s death rate rose nearly 50%, accounting for about 170 new deaths.
Meanwhile, Pitkin County reported only two new deaths during the same period, and Eagle County’s rate has remained stable. As of October 15, 2021, Pitkin County’s death rate was about 28.2 per 100,000 and Eagle County’s rate was 56.3 per 100,000. On January 15, they reached 40.3 and 62.9, respectively. This means that four Eagle County residents have died from COVID-19 during this period.
dr Kim Levin, who serves on the Pitkin County Board of Health, explained that multiple variables likely contributed to this low death rate.
“We started with a healthier church than other churches,” she said. “Vaccines, all the masking efforts, the social distancing efforts, all the tools that have been put in place effectively and how we can use them and work towards that goal at a local level.”
Almost 90% of the population ages 5 and older in Pitkin County and 85% of that population in Eagle County are fully vaccinated.
The situation is very different in Delta and Mesa counties, where approximately 50% to 55% of people ages 5 and older are fully vaccinated.
Various vaccine distribution strategies across the slopes
Sullivan recalled the emotion and hope that accompanied Delta County’s first vaccination clinics.
“What was interesting was that these were people who had largely been isolating at home because they thought they would die if they got this,” she said. “It wasn’t a joke for her. Some of them cried when they got it. It was very emotional. People in wheelchairs, very old people who have been at home, husbands and wives, children bringing their parents.”
Many counties adopted an approach to vaccine distribution that involved large-scale public information and education campaigns and actively placed materials and personnel in their communities to educate and educate people about the vaccines.
But Delta County’s approach was very different — something Sullivan said was an attempt to embrace local culture.
“It probably wouldn’t be a surprise to see the West Slope people as independent thinkers,” she said. “Our approach is quite natural to ‘Here’s what we’re bringing to you today. can i promise something I can’t promise anything, but I can tell you that it will reduce the risk, making you less likely to be hospitalized. If you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to die, especially if you have some of these underlying risk factors.’”
She said there was even a Delta County doctor who prescribed ivermectin — a drug most commonly used as a dewormer for horses — as an alternative to the COVID-19 vaccine.
The drug has not proven to be an effective COVID treatment, although it gained popularity after some conservative politicians made false claims about its effectiveness.
Tackling inaccurate information about COVID and the vaccine has been a challenge for public health departments keen to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
But despite these challenges, Sullivan said, Department of Health officials wanted to honor this independent-thinking spirit of their community.
“I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m just trying to help them,” she said.
Eagle County has conducted a much more aggressive campaign than Delta County to hit people where they are.
These efforts have included live question-and-answer sessions on social media and public information campaigns, as well as making the vaccine available as easily as possible and offering clinics in health centers and throughout the community.
A major challenge for many counties was ensuring that the most vulnerable populations had access to the vaccine and providing accurate and understandable information about the vaccine to people who did not speak English.
Although most of the white population in Eagle County has received at least one shot, as of April 1, about 40% of the county’s Hispanic population did.
“We implemented some strategies as early as possible,” said Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s director of public health. “To be honest, I don’t know if it always reached all of our community members with the intent we hoped it would.”
Gunnison County has one of the smallest vaccine disparities in the region. About three quarters of the white population and half of the Latino population received at least one dose.
Gunnison County Health Director Joni Reynolds said the county was able to leverage existing relationships within the community, which has helped them distribute the vaccine more equitably.
“We did a lot of outreach in non-traditional settings, so we didn’t just wait for people to come into our clinic environment. … We have done some clinics in recreation centers at meetings that the immigrant community holds monthly. We’ve done vaccinations in churches, we’ve done vaccinations in the spring at football games,” Reynolds said. “My guidance to my team was really, I want people to stumble on vaccination.”
This aggressive vaccination campaign paid off. Gunnison County has reported about 3,700 cases and 15 COVID deaths since 2020 — one of the lowest case and death rates in the region.
This project is a collaboration between Aspen Journalism and Aspen Public Radio. Part one examined how different initial responses were across the six counties.