It has been a year since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first case of COVID-19 in the United States Jan. 21, 2020.

To date the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported more than 24,100,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 400,000 deaths of those testing positive for the disease during the pandemic.

Dr. Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association said last week, “As of this morning, more than 400,000 Americans – a once unimaginable toll – have died of COVID-19.”

“One in every 820 people in our country have died during this pandemic – often alone, typically away from family and friends – comforted only by physicians and nurses in layers of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment),” she said.

Even as vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have begun to be available, the national 7-day moving average for number of deaths connected with COVID-19 hit a pandemic high of 3,357 Jan. 13. The average had been lowered to 3,007 by Jan. 18.

“With a more contagious strain of COVID-19 spreading rapidly across the country, the simple steps we’ve advocated for months are more important than ever: wear your mask, practice physical distancing, and wash your hands, to help reduce illness and deaths,” Bailey said.

“Today, vaccine distribution is underway, and there is hope on the horizon. Vaccines are safe, effective, prevent illness and save lives. Protect yourselves and your loved ones by getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s your turn,” she said.

COVID-19 found in Colorado

The first official case of COVID-19 in Colorado was identified March 5, as a male in his 30s who had traveled to Italy in February and who had traveled to Colorado Feb. 29 and spent time at Keystone and Vail before he developed symptoms and was tested.

The positive result in that case came back and was reported by the governor’s office immediately.

Also in the first days of March, Chaffee Health advised coronavirus control will be a marathon, not a sprint for residents and businesses.

By March 17, Colorado Department of Health and Environment began reporting data on COVID-19 cases within the state with a total of 183 cases and 2 deaths.

Gov. Jared Polis announced the closure of nonessential businesses March 25 and the state public health department issued its first public health orders in relation to COVID-19.

March 20 saw the first three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Chaffee County in three males, ages 46, 69 and 84.

One of those first cases was a resident of Columbine Manor Care Center.

Buena Vista schools shuttered their doors against the pandemic spread.

Salida School District closed all campuses for in person learning and began teaching classes remotely after checking computers out to students.

Friday the 13th of March saw the closures spreading across the country hit home across Buena Vista and Chaffee County.

By Monday, March 16, Gov. Polis issued a 30-day closure of all restaurants in Colorado, save for take out and delivery.

The Lariat on East Main furloughed 46 employees, its skeletal staff carrying on take out orders for a couple weeks before closing doors that remained locked.

A couple blocks down the street, Simple Eatery’s take out and delivery service thrived.

Longtime U.S. 24 fixture Jan’s stayed open with it’s take out service after more than two dozen employees were laid off.

Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center was obliged to close non-emergent services and make changes to the hospital’s configuration to potentially increase capacity in case of an outbreak emergency.

By April 11, Columbine Manor was considered an outbreak site. A total of 44 residents at Columbine contracted the virus by the time the outbreak was considered resolved May 29. Of those, 14 died. Affected staff members numbered 15.

April 21 Polis announced the change from the Stay at Home order to the Safer at Home order as businesses were allowed to begin opening under COVID-19 precautions.

Chaffee County was able to apply for and receive variances from the state based on the county’s level of case spread.

When restaurants were allowed to open for seated dining in May, several sought to increase their outdoor seating.

To that end, Salida City Council allowed the June 4 closure of F street between Second and First streets to accommodate outdoor seating for restaurants and other businesses throughout the summer and into early fall.

Sales tax in Buena Vista and the county continued its steady climb, albeit at a slower rate upward.

While many annual festival events were cancelled due to COVID-19, most restaurateurs and business owners in the downtown district nevertheless reported a prosperous and busy summer season with more customers visiting stores than expected.

CKS PaddleFest aimed to “Just Keep Paddling” with an online virtual competition Memorial Day weekend and downstream in Salida a truncated version of FIBArk was held in August, with a focus on boating events.

By the end of the summer, Salida School District, which had spent the latter part of the 2019-2020 school year learning through trial and error how to operate remotely, were able to open to in-person after a summer of planning.

The district had layers of precautions in place and plans in place to switch to remote learning, with an enhanced system, when necessary.

Buena Vista schools opened to in-person learning for fall classes, and other than a few class quarantines and short closures of some buildings, the fall semester remained on track.

In September, the state launched a new way of keeping track of each county’s level of risk with the color coded dashboard dial.

Chaffee County was initially in the concern yellow zone, but an increase in the number of cases in the county around Thanksgiving prompted the state to move the county to the high risk orange level.

Mid-December saw the arrival of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and the beginning of the first of three vaccination phases which continues, as do new cases of the virus in the county as the pandemic wears on.

The county’s response to the crisis

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chaffee County government, public health, Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center, emergency services, Solvista Health and other entities have met regularly to monitor the COVID-19 situation and local response to the crisis.

Much of the onus of preparation, planning and carrying out of public health policy has fallen on the shoulders of Chaffee County Public Health Director and Incident Commander for COVID-19, Andrea Carlstrom.

It has been a task with many parts and many reactions from the public, not all positive.

Carlstrom and her public health team have received accolades from some members of the public and disdain, even threats, from others as public health policy has rolled out in response to the pandemic during the last year.

Those in public health train for the occurance of epidemics, pandemics and other public health emergencies, but rarely expect to deal with one of the magnitude of COVID-19.

Carlstrom said, “What I hope the general public understands is that the public health system never asked for a pandemic.

“While we have trained and planned for one, the political and economic factors that we have experienced in our response have been tough on all of us and have added extra complexities that we have never experienced before in recent history.”

She said while the past year has been a dynamic and challenging one, she is really proud of Chaffee County for staying the course and taking the public health strategies seriously, especially as they have evolved and more has been learned about COVID-19.

“Key ingredients to our success so far include having a strong group of leadership stakeholders that have coordinated and collaborated on response efforts since the county experienced its first positive case, fostering relationships throughout the county and listening to and acting on county needs and proposed solutions, recognizing the importance of a robust, dedicated, and nimble local public health team and system, and always being available to respond to the competing priorities that a pandemic presents,” Carlstrom said.

Challenges have been many and Carlstrom said the biggest challenge has been the constant changing and competing priorities.

“Oftentimes, my team and I have found that we are writing the playbook as the pandemic unfolds. This has been and will continue to be no easy feat.

“However, with a strong and dedicated team and network of community partners, we are demonstrating that Chaffee County can get through this chapter in history, and hopefully, more resilient and unified than ever,” she said.

Challenges, rewards

Challenges often have their rewards and Carlstrom has had a few for her efforts.

“It is an honor to live in and serve our amazing valley in this capacity. Saving lives, reopening businesses, keeping our schools open as much as possible to in-person learning, and hearing stories about strength, tenacity, creativity and support of one another keep me going,” she said.

“I am also so grateful for my amazing CCPH team and support from our county’s leaders.

“Chaffee County has demonstrated that synergy is possible in the most adverse circumstances and that it takes all of us working together to get through an epic pandemic,” Carlstrom said.

Carlstrom acknowledged that feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, depression and frustration are normal reactions to a very abnormal and unprecedented event such as this and said she hoped everyone is taking the time and getting the support that they need to get through “this ultramarathon of disasters.”

As the COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll out, Carlstrom said, “There is a glimmer of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.”

While the community must continue to practice the public health strategies to get through the next few months, those that fall within the beginning phases are being vaccinated and the hope is to vaccinate more groups throughout winter and spring.

At this time, the vaccine supply is limited, and CCPH and other healthcare providers are doing their best to roll out this critical turning point as effectively and efficiently as possible, she cautioned.

“Patience is critical at this stage in the pandemic,” Carlstrom said

Times editor Dave Schiefelbein contributed to this report.

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