How Colorado County Went From Great to Awful in COVID-19 Fight

The Cruising for Freedom Rally in Grand Junction on July 4, 2020, when COVID-19 rates there  were extremely low.
Photo by Nick Roberts
The Cruising for Freedom Rally in Grand Junction on July 4, 2020, when COVID-19 rates there were extremely low.
The rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in Colorado continues to disappoint public health officials, and the drop is particularly bad in many conservative counties.

Exhibit A: Mesa County, the population center of Colorado's Western Slope. A year ago, the level of novel coronavirus infections there was among the lowest in the state — a surprise, given that more than 150,000 people live there, with most of them located in and around the Grand Junction metro area.

And now? As of today, June 18, Mesa County is one of the 29 Colorado counties in which fewer than 50 percent of its eligible residents have received even one dose of the vaccine. Mesa County now has one of the highest COVID-19 incidence rates in the state, and among the most problematic hospitalization figures.

The situation is so bad that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has made Mesa County the poster child for its efforts to increase the pace of vaccinations in areas where they're lagging — a campaign intended to prevent Colorado from turning into a state with some areas where COVID-19 may never go away.

This week, notes Brandy Emily, the CDPHE's health equity branch chief, the department has staged "multiple clinics in areas with lower vaccine uptake, such as Mesa County, with stops at the Mesa County Libraries Central Branch, the Mesa Mall, and at Crossroad Blvd and Horizon Drive. We added the Mesa bus to respond to increased disease prevalence and lower vaccination rates in the area."

What a difference a year makes. In July 2020, we spotlighted Mesa County and Grand Junction in "COVID-19: Colorado City the Virus Forgot Gets Pissed," a post that documented the way the city's quaint annual Independence Day parade had morphed into a Cruising for Freedom Rally decrying public-safety measures related to the disease. Back then, masks and social distancing were rare even among those who weren't waving Trump 2020 banners or packing heat. In many ways, it felt like a place where COVID-19 never existed.

This attitude was understandable, considering data collected by the New York Times at the time.The early July 2020 stats showed that since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Mesa County had registered just 118 positive cases, or a rate of 77 per 100,000 people. Moreover, no deaths had resulted from those infections, despite the fact that a huge chunk of Grand Junction's population is elderly; the town is a destination for retirees. And while the 4.1 daily cases based on a seven-day average on July 5 represented a modest increase from the 2.7 daily cases two weeks prior, Denver was seeing ten times as many positive cases.

Since then, the situation in Mesa County has undergone an almost complete reversal. It is now one of just four Colorado counties at Level Red on the state's COVID-19 dial dashboard, with a two-week cumulative incidence rate of 392.4; only the rates in Dolores and Moffat counties (638.2 and 475.4 respectively) are higher. In addition, it's one of just two Colorado counties — Moffat is the other — with fewer than seven days of stable or declining hospitalizations for the disease; Mesa is currently at six days.

As for vaccinations, just 44.1 percent of Mesa County's eligible population has gotten its initial inoculation. That's far from the lowest number in Colorado — Crowley County sets the floor with just 18.5 percent. But Mesa County is the second-most populous county below 50 percent right now; El Paso County, with a population of more than 700,000, is at 49.7 percent.

For the CDPHE's Emily, the arguments in favor of immunization couldn't be clearer. "Being fully vaccinated in Colorado corresponds to about 93 percent protection against being reported as a case in the state," she points out. But while "more Coloradans are vaccinated each day, a portion of the population remains vulnerable to COVID-19 disease. Colorado county-level data shows a clear relationship between high vaccination rates and low infection rates. We’re starting to see population-level protection from these vaccines resulting in decreased transmission and lower case rates in areas with high vaccination, but we still have a ways to go to reach our goal."

As a result, she continues, "We have worked closely with local public health agencies throughout the pandemic, and that includes our vaccine distribution efforts. From the data, we know we need to do more to get communities of color and rural Coloradans vaccinated, and we have a multifaceted approach to doing that."

Here's her bullet-pointed list of efforts to increase vaccinations:

• "We have organized over 1,500 vaccine equity clinics in 56 counties."

• "We are partnering with businesses and organizations in our Workplace Vaccination Program to provide vaccine clinics on work sites."

• "Our Power the Comeback campaign is running statewide in English and Spanish. The campaign includes Awareness ads, testimonial videos, and animated videos."

• "We have a Spanish Facebook page and a Spanish COVID-19 website."

• "We facilitate the Champions for Vaccine Equity program to provide information to disproportionately impacted communities about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, as well as utilizing Promotoras, service providers, and crisis counselors to support vaccine literacy. The initiative is intended to foster sustained dialogue with structurally marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, about the vaccine by connecting them with health care workers from their communities and backgrounds."

• "We are dismantling barriers to access and have told vaccine providers that no identification, proof of residency, or insurance is required to obtain the vaccine."

"We have a 24/7 vaccine hotline — 1-877-CO VAX CO (1-877-268-2926). Call agents provide assistance in multiple languages and can help schedule appointments. In addition to the information available on our website and through the COVID-19 vaccine call center, Coloradans can opt-in to receive the latest COVID-19 vaccine information via text by texting 'vaccine' for English or 'vacuna' for Spanish to 1-855-355-4566. Our community vaccine sites and many vaccine providers accept walk-in appointments. We also support numerous vaccine equity clinics, often located in trusted community gathering places."

How much of a difference these efforts will make in Mesa County is unclear. But one thing's certain: What was once an oasis in the COVID-19 pandemic in Colorado is now ground zero.