A housing market with short supply and high demand does not bode well for a local workforce. That truth is evident in Colorado’s high country, where voters expressed their frustration with the lack of affordable housing and approved a majority of ballot measures aimed at allocating funds to affordable-housing initiatives.
The high country saw at least 18 ballot measures that somehow addressed the need for affordable housing for local workforces.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a housing advocacy organization, reported that 53% of low income households in Colorado are rent-burdened — or spending more than 30% of their monthly income on housing, as of 2020.
And, Colorado has seen an exponential jump in real-estate prices since the pandemic. According to Redfin, the median home sale price in February 2020 was $403,900. In September 2022, the median price was $549,500.
Both of these statistics feel exacerbated in mountain towns, where the strain on the local workforces is evident in the litany of “help wanted” signs and pleas for affordable housing options in Facebook groups.
The lack of housing — affordable and otherwise — drives the price hikes. Experts say that the shortage the state is experiencing now started years ago.
“We saw a 40% decrease in housing production in a decade following the Great Recession. And so, we’re pretty far behind on our housing supply across the board. But, affordable housing specifically has been really negatively affected by that lack of production,” said Brian Rossbert, executive director of Housing Colorado.
And, even though the Colorado minimum wage will rise to $13.65 in 2023, it does not match the ballooning real estate and rental prices. The NLIHC reported that a minimum wage of $28.64 is needed to afford a two-bedroom unit in Colorado. Both Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts set their starting hourly wage for non-tipped employees at $20 an hour.
To address the affordable-housing crisis, the government put the issue to voters. Statewide, Proposition 123 passed by a small margin. It will allocate 0.1% of taxable income in Colorado to fund affordable housing programs and assist local governments in increasing their affordable housing stock by 3% each year.
Many local governments took advantage of HB 22-1117 during the midterm election, or the Use Of Local Lodging Tax Revenue bill from March 2022. It permitted the re-allocation of revenue from the marketing and promotion tax in local marketing districts and lodging tax in counties to fund housing and child care for tourism-related workforces, with voter approval.
But, most high-country counties, especially those with ski resorts, saw an increase on short-term rental taxes on the ballot. Here is a breakdown of some of those ballot measures:
Proposition 123: The state proposed reallocating 0.1% of taxable income to affordable housing programs and initiatives — 60% of funds to affordable housing financing programs and 40% to programs that support home ownership, support people experiencing homelessness, and support local planning. Local governments that receive funds from Proposition 123 must increase their affordable housing stock by 3% annually. It passed 52.19% to 47.81%.
Ballot Initiatives in high-country counties:
Aspen Issue 2A: The city proposed a sales tax increase on STRs. Lodge-exempt (condominiums) and owner-occupied STRs faced a 5% tax increase. Classic STRS (Airbnbs, etc.) faced a 10% increase. Voters approved it 62% to 38%.
Snowmass Issue 2C: The town proposed re-allocating a portion of its marketing and lodging taxes to workforce housing. It passed 82.7% to 17.3%.
Carbondale Issue 2A: The town proposed imposing an additional tax of 6% sales tax on STRs to fund affordable-housing initiatives. It passed 71.7% to 28.3%.
Glenwood Springs Issue 2C: The city proposed an additional 2.5% sales tax on on lodging, including STRs, to fund affordable-housing projects. It passed 55.2% to 44.8%.
Eagle County Issue 1A: The county proposed a 2% lodging sales tax on STRs, excluding municipalities Avon, Minturn, Red Cliff, Basalt, and Vail. The funds will go to child-care programs and affordable-workforce housing, breaking that down to 10% of tax revenue to tourism marketing and 90% to the housing and child-care programs. It passed 59.56% to 40.44%.
Town of Vail Issue 2I: The town proposed collecting the excess revenue from a 2021 0.5% housing sales tax increase to fund housing initiatives. It passed 73.55% to 26.45%.
Grand Junction Issue 2A: The city proposed increasing the lodging tax from 6% to 7% to support nonprofit and governmental partnerships, plus affordable housing for households that make 80% or less of the area’s median income. It failed with 32.08% of votes in favor to 62.92% against.
Grand Junction Issue 2B: The city proposed an 8% tax on STRs to fund affordable-housing initiatives. It failed with 26.4% votes in favor to 73.6% votes against.
Summit County Referred Measure 1B: The county proposed a 2% lodging tax on STRs on unincorporated areas of Summit County to fund “quality of life” initiatives for locals like affordable housing and child care. It passed 72.7% to 23.7%.
Town of Dillon Issue 2C: The town proposed increasing the town’s debt up to $20 million to support the acquisition and maintenance of workforce housing. It passed 54.8% to 45.2%.
Steamboat Springs Issue 2A: The city proposed a 9% tax raise on STRs and to put that revenue toward “affordable and attainable” workforce-housing projects. It passed 62.3% to 37.7%.
Gunnison River Valley Local Marketing District Issue 6A: The district proposed re-allocating up to 40% of revenue from the marketing tourism tax on lodging toward affordable and workforce housing. It passed 68.5% to 31.5%.
Chaffee County Issue 1A: The county proposed re-allocating up to 60% of the 1.9% lodging-tax revenue to affordable housing and childcare for the local workforce. It passed 63.8% to 36.2%
Estes Park Local Marketing District Issue 6A: The district proposed raising the lodging tax by 3.5% to fund workforce housing and childcare. It passed 60.85 to 39.15%.
Park County Issue 1B: The county proposed a 2% lodging tax on STRs, excluding Fairplay, which already has its own lodging tax, to fund housing and child care for the tourism-related workforce and marketing within the county. It failed with 41.7% of votes in favor and 58.3% of votes against.
Fraser River Valley Housing Partnership Issue 6A: The partnership proposed imposing a mill levy at the rate of 2.0 mills to fund and maintain affordable workforce housing. It passed 56.6% to 43.39%.
Town of Grand Lake Issue 2A: The town proposed an additional sales tax not exceeding 15% on recreational marijuana, with half of the revenue to general funds and half to support ‘attainable housing.’ It passed 53.02% to 46.98%.
Gilpin County Issue 1A: The county proposed a 2% lodging tax on STRs, excluding the cities of Central and Black Hawk, with 10% of the revenue to fund marketing and tourism and 90% to fund a broad swath of initiatives, including workforce housing. It passed 54.8% to 45.2%.
With many local governments preparing for an influx of tax revenue earmarked for affordable housing, advocacy groups like Housing Colorado will be watching to see how the money is spent.
“We can’t talk about health policy or education policy without talking about housing policy,” Rossbert said. “And so, we really encourage local housing advocates to communicate in ways that root all policy discussions in housing.”
Only in Colorado did an affordable-housing ballot measure appear on the ballot statewide, according to reporting from Colorado Public Radio, despite the housing crisis existing nationwide. But, Colorado’s affordable-housing ballot measures performed well from the state to local levels this election, which heartens Rossbert.
“These investments send a message to our state and federal elected officials that communities who are affected by this housing crisis, which I would argue are all (communities), are taking steps themselves,” he said. “And now, the impetus is on state leaders and federal leaders to take steps to address the crisis.
Dotsero Mobile Home Park residents are trying to become Eagle County’s first resident-owned community
The residents of the Dotsero Mobile Home Park are attempting to collectively purchase the park and become the first resident-owned community in Eagle County. The challenge is, they have less than 60 days left to secure financing and make an offer before the landlord can begin accepting bids from outside buyers.
A new statewide bill, signed into law in 2020, requires park owners who wish to sell their property to notify residents of the impending sale, and guarantees that residents will have 90 days after notification to organize into a cooperative and make a competitive offer before the landowner can sell the property.
Since being notified of the sale in early April, 64 of the 84 homeowners in the Dotsero Mobile Home Park have already signed on to join the aptly named Volcanic View Cooperative, and are now taking steps to become owners of the park that they call home. It’s a challenging road ahead, with a tight and imposing deadline, but with the help of the greater Eagle County community, these residents have the opportunity to secure their homes for decades to come.
A tight-knit community
The Dotsero Mobile Home Park is a tightly interconnected community. The park, located just off exit 133 on Interstate 70, started around 30 years ago, housing laborers who worked on the Glenwood Canyon project. It has since grown to 84 individual homes with an average of five occupants per structure, many of whom have lived on the property their entire lives.
Alondra Gardea, 25, is the vice president of the board for the Volcanic View Cooperative. Gardea shares a home with her husband and her 5-year-old daughter, and lives across from her parents and down the street from her sister.
“I’ve been here since I was a little toddler, and I grew up with so many people that live here. I mean, they watched me grow up,” Gardea said. “I can hope, if we do go through with this buy, that my daughter can raise her own family here someday, just like my parents raised me.”
Many of the residents are second- and third-generation members of the community, with roots that started in Mexico and remained intact as people followed friends and family to Eagle County in search of a better life.
The residents are banding together with the help of Thistle, a nonprofit organization based out of Boulder that provides technical assistance to mobile home parks in Colorado to help them transition to resident ownership. Resident-owned communities are still a rare occurrence in Colorado, but Thistle has successfully helped six communities transition to resident ownership since 2017, including a park in Leadville last fall.
Andy Kadlec is the program director at Thistle, and said that the strong showing of support from the Dotsero community is a crucial factor for attaining success.
“The law requires a minimum of 51% of the community to be in favor of a purchase, but from our perspective that can also mean that 49% are against it,” Kadlec said. “We really like to see a high level of engagement and interest, and I believe that this community has that. They’ve had fantastic attendance and turnout to meetings we’ve hosted, and have really shown a lot of interest in learning more about this process and what it would take to purchase their community.”
Gardea said that the residents are motivated to attain the security that comes with owning the land they live on, and want to have control of their futures.
“A lot of people want this, because we don’t know who the new owner would possibly be and what he wants to do with this land — if he will keep us here, or if he wants to build apartments or condos,” Gardea said. “You’re always living with that. Are they going to come now, are they going to tell us to leave, what are they going to do? Once it’s ours, no one is ever going to come and tell us anything, because it belongs to us.”
Ownership would also give the residents the ability to tackle much-needed improvements to the property. The park was not designed to be a permanent residence, so there are a number of infrastructure projects that need to be undertaken in order to support a healthy and durable residential community moving forward.
The most expensive project will be an overhaul of the park’s septic system, which is outdated and insufficient to meet the needs of the growing community.
In addition to the septic system, the water supply needs to be changed. Sourced from the base of the Dotsero volcano, the water that currently runs through the park’s pipes is undrinkable and, in most cases, entirely unusable due to high mineral content.
Kyleigh Morales, 32, is the president of the Volcanic View Cooperative. She said that the only way that the community can access clean water is to purchase water bottles and jugs in bulk from Costco.
“We need six to eight cases every time we go, because that’s our cooking water, that’s our cleaning water, that’s our drinking water,” Morales said. “If, say, women want to dye their hair, it turns green. It’s like you’re going swimming every day. You can’t cook with it, you can’t wash your car with it, you can’t even grow grass because of the water.”
Morales said that the poor water quality causes a myriad of issues and extra costs for residents, corroding water heaters, washing machines, and pipes to the point where they must be replaced on an annual basis. In order for the community to get fresh water into their pipes, they would have to tap into another water source.
The current landowner has also neglected road repairs in the park for many years, resulting in large potholes and dangerous cracks that make it difficult for cars to access the community.
“It’s hard watching a place where you call home, where the owner doesn’t take responsibility for some of the stuff that should have been done,” Morales said. “But we can’t really do it when our hands are tied to get it fixed. So this is the only way for us to get it fixed, is to buy the community ourselves.”
In order to secure a loan from the bank, the Volcanic View Cooperative first needs to contract an engineer to estimate the costs of undertaking these three big infrastructure projects. Kadlec said that including the costs of major repairs into the loan is a necessary step for ensuring the long-term viability of a resident-owned community.
“A really important aspect is doing a deep analysis of what major projects they might need to assume in the first 10 years of ownership, and assure that they have appropriate financing to take care of that so they’re not cash strapped in five years if an infrastructure project goes awry and they have to pay a million dollars for something,” Kadlec said. “This is a big decision for the community, and ensuring they have resources and the information at their hands to make a qualified decision whether or not to move forward with the purchase really relies on understanding that.”
At this stage of the process, finding and financing an engineer to provide that survey is the biggest roadblock that the cooperative is facing. Morales said that the estimated cost of the survey is around $10-15,000 dollars, and that they cannot proceed to the next step of the process without it.
“Right now, we’re at a standstill,” Morales said. “We’re having a really hard time finding an engineer that can do it in such short notice, because we only have 90 days, and that ends on July 1. We also need to raise the funds for the engineer, and it’s not a cheap expense. Our only option right now is to ask our little community to help fund that.”
The community has started a GoFundMe Page to help raise the money necessary to finance the survey, and plans to hold a cookout later in the month to try and raise additional funds.
Morales said that residents’ ambitions for the property don’t end with the necessary infrastructure projects. She said that people have dreams of finally growing grass and flowers on their property — not just cleaning it up, but beautifying it — and that in time they hope to create a park that they can all be proud of, one that no longer invites the cruel but common nickname “Dot-Ghetto.”
“That’s literally what they call it, and it was no one’s intention, ever, of getting to that point,” Morales said. “This is hope for everybody, because everyone thought that it wouldn’t get better, and now that we have the opportunity to buy it, this is everyone’s dream. Which is kind of crazy for 84 households to have the same goal: to fix it up, make it better, make it what we’ve always wanted to see.”
Maintaining affordable workforce housing
The call for reliable and affordable workforce housing in Eagle County grows with each passing year, and the Dotsero Mobile Home Park is providing exactly that for dozens of families who work throughout the valley.
Marlene Rios, 19, came to the park as a child with her mother and two younger sisters.
“My mom is a single mother, and this was the only place that she was able to come in and have enough money to start having a home for us,” Rios said. “We actually started in a really small trailer, and we worked until we were finally able to get a bigger one for our family.”
Today, Rios is a graduate of Eagle Valley High School, has been working at Alpine Bank through Eagle County’s CareerWise program for three years, and is currently pursuing a degree in psychology at Colorado Mountain College’s Vail Valley campus in Edwards. When she heard about the opportunity to buy the park, she stepped up to serve as treasurer of the Volcanic View Cooperative, because she has experienced first-hand how transformative it is to own your own home.
“We’ve all grown up here, and I’ve loved it,” Rios said. “I think we all love the peace of just knowing that you won’t have someone come and bother you, that it’s just your space right there. You can just be you, without worrying about who has to say something, who’s going to complain.”
If the Dotsero Mobile Home Park is sold to an outside buyer, the new landlord could raise rental rates at will or force the residents off the land entirely. If that happens, the entire community would be pushed into an already overcrowded housing market, with very few, if any, options that resemble the current prices that they pay for housing.
“Everything is so expensive here and there’s really nowhere to go,” Gardea said. “I mean, there’s a wait list that’s so long — apartments, houses are expensive. It’d be really hard to go anywhere else.”
“It’s about $1,300 per room in Eagle County that you’re renting for,” Morales said. “Here, that money could go to our property. We can put the money back. With the loan we have to pay off, rent would only increase by a couple of hundred, instead of where if a new person comes in, it could go up thousands. It’s just worth a lot more to us than it would be to somebody else.”
The clock is ticking, and the board of the Volcanic View Cooperative is now turning to the greater Eagle County community to help support the process and get them to the bidding table before it’s too late.
“We can’t do it on our own, which is hard for some people to say, but we need help. Dotsero Trailer Park needs the help,” Morales said. “I think everyone is scared of what will happen if someone else does buy it, so we’re trying our hardest. If the community is willing to help us, we’re all willing to help other people, too.”
To donate to the Volcanic View Cooperative, search for the fundraiser titled “A better future for Dotsero’s community” on GoFundme.com. To connect with the board members and share contacts, resources or ideas, email email@example.com.
Stronger together: How Eagle County’s health care workers rose to the challenge of COVID-19
In the thick of the pandemic, in a year that refused to let up, Caitlyn Gnam started running.
An infection preventionist at Vail Health Hospital, Gnam prefers more daring outdoor pursuits: whitewater kayaking, dirt biking, and tearing down the mountain on her skis. But with her professional life bleeding into every aspect of her personal life, Gnam needed a release valve. As the 14-hour days at the hospital stacked up, and the toll of the pandemic weighed on her, she found herself being pulled outdoors for what she jokingly referred to as “jogging on purpose.”
Running from something? Towards something? Gnam isn’t so sure, but whatever it was, she absolutely needed it.
“I used to be able to leave thinking about infectious disease and masking and hand washing at work,” she said. “And I would go home and go in public and nobody cares about that kind of thing. But now the whole planet is thinking about your work. So it’s harder to escape in that sense.”
Before COVID-19 took over her life, pandemic preparedness was a sidebar in Gnam’s role at Vail Health. It was the “oh, just in case” aspect of a job focused on keeping infections out of the hospital. Name any type of infection — staph, urinary tract, seasonal flu, SARS — and you can be sure that Gnam has, at some point, obsessed over it.
But in early 2020, that “oh just in case” scenario of a global pandemic quickly consumed every waking minute of her life. Protocols and rigorous training are essential to a job that requires constant vigilance, but Gnam said she could always compartmentalize her work. That changed when a mysterious, airborne virus that originated halfway around the world quickly found its way into every corner of humanity, including Eagle County.
The valley’s two largest health care providers, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical, braced for the arrival of COVID-19 by stockpiling personal protective equipment before supply chains were overwhelmed and launching a system-wide high-level task force to solve logistical challenges as they arose. But when case numbers exploded locally in early March, there was no training to emotionally prepare for the reality of a novel virus that was highly contagious and deadly.
“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” Gnam said. “But for something to spread that quickly, we knew that it was something different and that we would be kind of off and running from that point.”
They haven’t slowed down since.
Antarctica. That’s where Dr. Brooks Bock was in late January when he first heard about COVID-19. Earth’s least inhabited continent was arguably the safest place on the planet with a global pandemic on the march.
Bock, the CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, was traveling with his wife on a National Geographic ship to see penguins up close. He first read about the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, in a daily newsletter that rounded up global headlines.
By the time he returned to the Vail Valley in February, he found himself on a voyage unlike any other he’d ever taken in a medical career spanning more than five decades. Over the course of 75 or so days, Bock and Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, worked out of a command center at the hospital managing the organization-wide response to the pandemic.
What started as a smaller team of high-level managers quickly grew to include as many as 24 different staffers from an array of departments over the months of February, March and April as the first wave of the virus shut down the valley and the state.
The objectives? Keeping the local health care system from buckling under the strain of the virus and protecting health care workers and the community at large.
For each member of the team, especially the two men heading up the collaborative effort, the experience was challenging, exhilarating and emotionally draining.
“We got to be good friends,” Bock said. “I have a tremendous respect for him and I enjoyed working with him.”
The challenge of slowing the virus put all of Lindley’s education and experience to the test. A former unit commander and environmental science officer of preventive medicine in the 793rd Medical Detachment of the United States Army Medical Reserves, Lindley served in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for saving multiple lives during a suicide bomber attack. He holds master’s degrees in public health, epidemiology and business administration.
His first job after getting his master’s in epidemiology was working with bioterrorism preparedness for Denver Health Medical Center.
“It was the first in the country training for pandemic influenza or large scale biological warfare attack,” he said. “These things, I’ve been thinking about them my whole career.”
If Lindley had been prepping for a global pandemic for years, Bock represented the opposite end of the spectrum.
“I certainly never planned to live in a pandemic,” he said. “And hopefully there won’t be another during the rest of my lifetime.”
Working together on the same problems, with the same goals in mind, often times with different approaches, brought the two together — and the two organizations they represented. Colorado Mountain Medical’s merger with Vail Health in July 2019 had, on paper, already created a valley-wide health care network — but Lindley, Bock and Vail Health CEO Will Cook insist that it took a pandemic, of all things, to truly make the two providers inseparable.
“There were lots of moments of concern and doubt,” Bock said. “The amazing thing was that everyone was very supportive. Everyone was very collaborative. There was no one who was trying to run the show. It was a group effort to figure out what we needed to do.”
Each day brought new challenges, and with those challenges came spirited debates, brainstorming sessions and swift innovation.
How to ramp up testing and keep the virus out of the hospital and clinics? Create the state’s first drive-thru testing facility, in Gypsum, and install a testing trailer at the hospital in Vail — both of which were in place by March 7. Also, create a system of “clean clinic” safety protocols to ensure the safety of patients and staff as clinics eventually began seeing patients again for well visits.
How to reach the valley’s Spanish-speaking communities? Partner with the MIRA Bus to begin offering free testing.
How to solve the riddle of a lack of available tests and delayed results from outside labs? Work to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly.
How to counter the slow-rolling behavioral health crisis that was engulfing the valley as residents struggled with isolation, joblessness, food and financial insecurity, and the stress of kids learning remote? Provide telehealth training for all behavioral health providers, hire 40 new behavioral health specialists and roll out a community-wide scholarship fund to provide those in need who are struggling financially with free access to services.
“We learned a lot about what it means to be resilient, and I think even before COVID, we were already dealing with a lot of those problems,” Cook said.
He described the response to COVID among his staff like any response to a traumatic event: First there was denial, then a sense of sorrow and being overwhelmed.
“I think that actually the initial phases bonded us together and really helped us respond the way that we did,” he said. “What I’ve liked the most, is, you know, Chris and Dr. Bock and even Amanda Amanda Veit, our COO, and so many others, were spending countless hours in that command center. But they were collaborating, making decisions, moving quickly and avoiding that bureaucratic sort of hierarchy that can sometimes make people feel like I’m not going to even bother to make this decision because I’m going to have to go through three channels above me.”
Bock said he enjoyed becoming a bit of a local celebrity by filming a number of informational videos with Lindley and others early on in the pandemic that helped soothe some of the fears of the community.
“We would call each other the day before and say, ‘OK, let’s make a video on this. Or let’s make a video on that,’” he said. “It was the topic of the moment that we were trying to educate the community on, and they were effective, remarkably effective. I can’t tell you how many people I would see when I was out and about at the grocery store, or wherever I ventured to, not often, but whenever I ventured out for the needs that I had, people would comment on how much they appreciated that and the personal touch that it brought to their lives and the assurances that they received from them.”
Added Lindley: “You always kind of look at the big health care systems, the big hospitals with all they can do,” he said. “Many of them have great resources, very talented people, great financial capability. But I got to see firsthand what this health care system is for this community and what it can do. And without question, I’m 100 percent certain the Vail Health system has done more in this community than any health care system I’ve heard about or ever dreamed about.”
‘This test sucks’
Mark Joffrion parachuted into a crisis. He started his job as the director of Vail Health’s laboratory in March, smack in the middle of the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the valley.
A soft-spoken Southerner who came to the Colorado after stints in labs all across the country, working in Louisiana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Oregon, California, Florida and North Carolina, Joffrion described his first weeks and months in his new role as an “everyday scramble” to find solutions to problems that were largely out of his control.
How could the lab get more tests? How could it avoid the growing backlogs for results from state and private labs?
“There was just that need to get results out immediately,” Joffrion said. “We kind of had our hands tied with the testing available and the turnaround times that we were dealing with.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Joffrion and Vail Health officials targeted in-house testing as a solution to both of those problems. Developing a test that worked, however, and being able to turn it around quickly to deliver results in a 24-hour period was a challenge that pushed every tech working in the lab to the brink over the summer and into the fall. As Joffrion and his staff worked tirelessly to find a reliable test, not to mention a manufacturer that could supply it, they coped with the stress that came from repeated phone calls looking for results that too often weren’t available.
The waiting was excruciating.
“It’s tough when we’re not the owners of that answer,” he said. “You know, we know when the results come back to us, but we had no control over when it came. And we were dealing with sometimes two, sometimes three different laboratories to get these results out or get them back to us.”
The lab received a test it could perform internally in April, but the supply was extremely limited, creating the need to horde the tests for the most symptomatic patients. Tests for asymptomatic patients were still being sent to an outside reference lab, with turnaround times taking as long as 10 days.
In May, the lab picked up another test it could perform internally, but again, the volume was extremely limited. Joffrion said he checked the FDA website every day to see which tests had been approved for emergency use and if his team could actually run them in the lab.
By October, he finally found a test that looked like it was doable, and would supply the large testing volume that his team needed to drastically reduce turnaround times.
Stress levels reached a peak, however, in the final weeks of October as techs worked their way through the delicate process of making sure the test actually worked. Joffrion said at one point, in a moment of frustration, one of his techs walked up to him in the lab and pronounced, “This test sucks.”
“But she came and we talked about it and I go back there and she’s just running them like a true professional,” he said, smiling. “She said what she wanted to say, but she got back there and she was running, you know, 60, 80, 100 of these tests at once and just doing an amazing job. That just speaks to the quality of individuals here in this laboratory. They were pushed to that limit, but they knew what we wanted, what our goal was.”
By November, with the test dialed, the lab was finally able to complete all testing in-house, and started receiving samples from collection sites in Summit County and Vail, as well as the Aspen area, becoming a regional testing center.
In November, the lab performed a total of 4,061 COVID tests, compared to just 835 in October and a little more than 200 in September. The lab has since performed more than 20,000 tests since November, often turning over a result in 10 hours or less.
“There were some days it was really doubtful if we could do it, but these are true professionals just stepping up to incredible levels to do what they did,” Joffrion said. “What’s happened in this laboratory is really amazing.”
Coming full circle
Julie Scales is uncomfortable with people making a big deal about her story. During the past 13 months, so many people have gotten sick, she said. So many have died.
There have been 22 Eagle County locals who have succumbed to the virus and more than half a million Americans. But talking to Scales’ coworkers at Vail Health, where she works as a lead respiratory therapist, her recovery from the virus is the narrative that often emerges when they talk about the turning points in the pandemic.
March 14, 2020, is the day when COVID-19 became jarringly personal to them. It’s the same day that the local ski resorts shut down and the hospital saw its highest number of patients admitted. One of those admitted was Scales, whose work often brought her into the emergency department.
“It came home pretty hard,” said Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients.
Earlier that week, Scales had been convinced she had a sinus infection. She had a pounding headache but no respiratory symptoms. Working in a hospital, over the course of a winter, everyone deals with colds and gets run down, and Scales just pushed on with her work. But by Saturday, she was experiencing respiratory symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. A day later, March 15, with her condition worsening, she was transported to the Medical Center of Aurora.
Stephen said seeing Scales being prepped for that ambulance ride down to the Front Range was similar to watching a patient go into the operating room for the last time for organ donation. Scales’ coworkers were legitimately frightened that it would be the last time they’d ever see her.
“It was really, really hard. Of all my ER staff, all of us that worked in the ER the whole time, none of us got COVID that we know of,” he said. “She’s the only one that worked in the ER intermittently, and after she got it, it was like, ‘OK, people, let’s make sure we buddy up.’ We were very, very careful with each other. We protected each other, we had each other’s back and made sure nobody was put at risk if somebody was really sick. We do not rush into that room.”
“It was definitely very scary,” Scales said. “I’m a respiratory therapist. I’ve intubated people on ventilators my whole career, and knowing that that’s where I was headed, I was very scared when I was headed down to Denver.”
Scales spent 10 days in the Aurora hospital, seven of them on a ventilator. She doesn’t remember much. Her daughter, 34, was with her.
“I had my phone, but I didn’t have a charger, so my phone would die,” she said. “My friend told me that I just texted her, and I just said, ‘I’m just going to try and live, OK?’”
After coming off the ventilator, Scales pleaded with doctors to discharge her. She returned home with the help of supplemental oxygen. From the beginning, she was determined to return to work. It took her nearly two months to get back on the job, and it was slow going at first.
“It was very emotional, and still is at times to take care of COVID patients,” she said. “My first ventilator patient that I took care of when I came back was super-emotional. I held it together in the patient’s room. But I had to take the tube out and it was very dramatic.”
Equally dramatic: the scene of Scales being the first Eagle County resident to receive a shot of vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. That’s when many of Scales’ coworkers said they could finally see the fog start to lift.
Since recovering, Scales has climbed a 14er and marked the one-year anniversary of when she was admitted as a patient by going skiing with some of her coworkers. Gnam was among those who were excited to get out on the hill with her.
“I just made a comment to my daughter that I would like to ski down the hill instead of go down the hill in an ambulance on the 15th,” said Scales, who spent more than three decades working in hospitals in her home state of Indiana before moving to Colorado a few years ago to be closer to her daughter. “I feel really humbled by everything and I feel bad for the people that didn’t make it because when I was sick, we had a lot of people in the valley that were sick.”
Getting to the other side
How does this story end? Vail Health CEO Will Cook isn’t so sure.
Too often, the COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to as a race. A race to save lives. A race to develop effective vaccines. A race to get back to normal.
Cook said Eagle County, as a whole, has run that race better than most places around the country and the state. The collaboration between the valley’s health care providers, local governments and the community at large has been at the center of that.
The county never plunged into the Level Red restrictions that were a crushing blow to neighboring counties. Shools have managed to remain open for the current academic year while other districts around the state struggled to open and stay open.
The pandemic forced innovation, collaboration and created an opportunity for leaders to emerge, Cook said. But that success story doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the national tragedy of a pandemic that is still killing as many as 1,000 Americans a day, and has claimed more than 500,000 American lives, continues to overshadow the local narrative.
“I’m still waiting for the impact of this to my management team,” Cook said. “In some of the front-line staff, we’re worried now about what we refer to as hero syndrome, which is that you get so caught up in being on the front lines of dealing with this and being in there for vaccinations where people are emotionally elated and overwhelmed and excited and happy. How do you go back to being the H.R. assistant after that? It’s understandable, though. I don’t think we’ve even seen the end of the impact of this.”
Lindley, an eternal optimist, said the last year has flown by for him, and that in a time where charged national debates over the virus, masking, and reopening created deeper fractures in American society, he has been inspired by the community spirit that has carried the day here.
“I think that finger pointing this year has started to decrease and go away,” he said. “And our challenge is, how do we stay in this community collaborative effort going forward? Because we’re going to have other challenges right now. We have a lot of things we have to address. But if we can do it in this response mode I think we’re all in, it’s unbelievable.”
Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
Making it to the other side of the pandemic, with the county rapidly approaching 30,000 total doses of vaccine distributed, is the light at the end of a tunnel in a trying year.
“They showed up for work and got it done,” Stephen said. “They’re team players, the best team in the land. You could have called in sick. You could have asked not to do it. But not a single one of them did that. We rose to the challenge. We were resilient and we stayed here for the community and took care of them.”