Walking Harrison Avenue

People wearing face coverings walk Harrison Avenue. Since Governor Jared Polis issued the statewide mandate requiring masks in public indoor places on July 16, face coverings have become commonplace among those in Leadville and Lake County.

Since March, Lake County has been responding to and feeling the impacts of COVID-19. As the situation changes and the pandemic continues, Leadville and Lake County are looking to data to help inform how the area will move forward in economic recovery and a reduction in the number of infections.

The first public health order attempting to limit the spread of coronavirus was issued in Lake County on March 13, restricting event sizes to 50 people or less. This order was followed by the stay-at-home order issued by Governor Jared Polis on March 26 which restricted all travel to essential and local affairs.

When Polis issued the order, 10 days after the closure of all non-essential business and the adoption of the county’s comprehensive emergency operations plan on March 16, Lake County had yet to see a positive case. Local public health officials were preparing for the first infections as the number of cases increased in Summit County, where the state’s first confirmed-positive case of COVID-19 was detected on March 6.

On March 30, the first two positive cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Lake County.

In the weeks following, directives and advice from state public health officials helped to inform Lake County’s response, led largely by Lake County Public Health Agency (LCPHA) and Lake County Office of Emergency Management (LCOEM).

Currently, Lake County remains in the safer-at-home stage of recovery.

“We consider this our ‘responsible reopening’ phase, which allows for incremental relaxation of restrictions on businesses and organizations while also maintaining COVID-19 precautions like limited group sizes, social distancing and mandatory face coverings,” Colleen Nielsen, director of LCPHA, said.

As such, local businesses have remained open while functioning under guidelines set forth by LCPHA. Local institutions are evaluating their ability to move forward with in-person functions and events requiring a special use permit, including the Leadville Race Series and Leadville Boom Days, remain canceled through September.

As of July 30, LCPHA reported 70 confirmed-positive cases of COVID-19 in Lake County, a number representative of positive test results for all individuals, residents and visitors alike, tested in Lake County. This number reflects only active cases as determined by testing for the virus itself, not antibodies that indicate a person has been infected.

For the past several weeks, local testing has shown a positivity rate between 5% and 7%, which puts the county in the high incidence category, with the goal to remain below seven cases in a two-week period, Nielsen said.

This trend is reflected at the state level, with an average of more than 600 cases being diagnosed each day in Colorado, according to data presented by Lisa Zwerdlinger, Lake County Public Health Officer, in the weekly update presented by LCPHA Tuesday.

There is no flattening of Colorado’s curve in positive cases over the past several weeks or months, Zwerdlinger said in reference to the upward trend shown in data gathered since March.

Death rates, data which generally lags about two weeks behind that of infection rates, appears to be flattening. The increase in infections over the past weeks, however, will likely see an accompanying increase in death rates once the data is available, Zwerdlinger said.

As of July 28, there are no reported deaths due to COVID-19 in Lake County.

The changing and non-linear nature of the recovery process makes predicting future developments difficult, and the need for new restrictions is still a possibility.

“We don’t frequently know in advance what changes will be mandated by the Governor’s Office, but we hope local businesses can be minimally disrupted again as we continue to move through the pandemic,” Nielsen said.

Throughout the pandemic, LCPHA has had difficulty in providing up to date information in a timely manner as a result of relying on state-level guidance, which is often released to public health agencies and the general public at the same time, she said.

As for enforcement of the public health orders, including Polis’s mask requirement issued July 16, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) and Leadville Police Department have not shown an interest in enforcing the orders through punitive measures.

From the beginning of the pandemic, lacking the capacity and desire to enforce the orders with citations or arrests, LCSO has focused mostly on education and outreach on public health orders, Sheriff Amy Reyes said.

“The goal is to have voluntary compliance and involve law enforcement only if there is criminal activity involved,” Nielsen said.

The impacts of the pandemic’s closures on Lake County’s economy will continue to be felt in the coming months and years.

Looking to the 2008 recession as an example of economic downturn, Mayor Greg Labbe emphasized the delay between national economic trends and how they are felt in Leadville and rural communities in general.

To offset some of the expenses the city and county incurred due to closures in both the public and private sectors, Leadville and Lake County applied for, and were awarded, $697,192 in federal CARES Act funding to reimburse unaccounted for expenses incurred by COVID-19, such as staffing needs and personal protective equipment.

In preparation for the fall, the city hopes to maintain a reserve of CARES Act funding in anticipation of further restrictions and their financial impacts.

As the pandemic continues, and the possibility of re-implementing restrictions remains, LCPHA will build on the experience it gained during the spring.

“In the spring, when COVID-19 first arrived in Colorado, no one – from Lake County to the highest offices in the state – had faced this type of situation before and we had to invent a framework to respond to it,” Nielsen said.

Feedback from the community and adaptations made by local agencies have allowed for LCPHA and other public agencies at the forefront of the response to learn and implement the changes as needed, she said.

Face coverings and social distancing are the new normal as the county continues to navigate the pandemic. The more each individual honors these practices, the better Lake County will be poised to reduce the presence of COVID-19 locally and regionally, Nielsen said.

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