No explosives found in vehicle that closed I-70 in Silverthorne
A report of possible explosives in a vehicle closed Interstate 70 between the Eisenhower Tunnel and the town of Silverthorne on Saturday afternoon.
The Jefferson County bomb squad responded, but it was Summit County’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team — otherwise known as the SMART team — which would ultimately provide the specialized knowledge needed for the incident.
Trooper Jacob Best with the Colorado State Patrol said the initial report of explosives proved to be untrue, and was suspected to have occurred as a result of a driver suffering from a severe anxiety disorder or dementia.
“The first safety patrol got on scene because they saw a vehicle pulled over on the side of the road, and the driver was outside of the vehicle, so our courtesy patrol/safety patrol came to check on him,” Best said. “As they were trying to figure out what was going on, that’s when this male party indicated that he was informed by a female party that there was an explosive or incendiary device inside of his vehicle.”
Best said the statement was assumed to be legitimate in the moment, as “he was well convinced, and provided a lot of detailed information initially, so out of an abundance of caution, we treated it as such,” and shut down the interstate.
The Jefferson County bomb squad inspected the vehicle and found no evidence of explosives.
Best said the Summit County’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team responded quickly.
“Our troopers are well informed that, in Summit County, if there’s an issue that they suspect may be a mental health issue, they are to request the Summit County SMART Team members,” Best said. “They’re usually on duty, or on call, and they respond right away.”
The interstate was closed for about 90 minutes.
Colorado is examining water speculation, and finding it’s ‘all the problems’ in one
ECKERT — Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.
Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”
Suspicion of outsiders
For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.
“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.
Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.
“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”
And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”
And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.
“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”
Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.
Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.
“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”
This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
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 Ngam started running.
An infection preventionist at Vail Health Hospital, Ngam 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, Ngam 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? Ngam 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 Ngam’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 Ngam 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 Ngam 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,” Ngam 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.”
Health care workers reflect on one-year anniversary of Eagle County’s first COVID-19 case
Eagle’s County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case arrived exactly 12 months ago on March 6, just one day after Colorado’s first case was discovered in neighboring Summit County.
But it’s clear that the virus was here and spreading much earlier than that, based on extensive interviews with health care workers and officials from Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical.
“We had COVID in this community in February. We had COVID all over the United States in February. We just didn’t have the ability to identify it,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health who has spearheaded the hospital’s COVID-19 response since the start. “The testing was not in place until March to identify a case at all in the country, let alone in this valley. And so once we started looking for COVID in early March, we found it right away.”
The state’s first confirmed case was a California man in his 30s who’d recently been to Italy and had come to Summit County to ski. He skied in Vail in the days before entering a medical facility on the other side of the pass and tested positive for the virus that would quickly alter every facet of life in the state over the next year.
Looking back, it’s no surprise that Eagle County quickly become one of the hottest spots in the state, and a global transmission zone, considering the visitors it attracts from all over the world.
Eagle County’s first confirmed case was an Australian woman in her 50s who wrote about her experience after returning home. Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the former Eagle County commissioner who is now the state’s top public health official as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has said that the virus was likely circulating here as early as January.
Just four days after Eagle County confirmed its first case, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency. On March 12, county public health officials said it was clear that community transmission was taking place — meaning people were contracting the virus that hadn’t traveled abroad and were unaware of how they might have gotten it. A day later, local schools shut down to slow the spread, a move that became permanent for the rest of the spring semester.
The following day, Saturday, March 14, Vail Resorts made the decision to temporarily shutter all 34 of its North American resorts and Polis ordered Colorado’s ski resorts closed for a week.
The closures, which sent the valley’s tourism-based economy into free fall during one of the busiest months of the year, became permanent as it became obvious that the virus was here to stay.
Planning and adjusting on the fly
Vail Health had prepared better than most hospitals around the country by stockpiling personal protective equipment in January before global supplies were depleted. It also launched a system-wide task force to tackle the logistical challenges of a pandemic. But the speed at which the virus spread, and roadblocks that quickly arose — from a severe shortage of tests, and state and private labs quickly getting overwhelmed — forced the local health care system to innovate on the fly and find local solutions to national and statewide problems.
In hindsight, health care workers said there was plenty that could have been done different in the weeks and months that followed, although so little was known about the virus when it first showed up. The world was a different place.
“We probably should have started masking in February, just knowing that travel across the world from this place in China that had a big outbreak of a highly infectious disease is going to spread throughout the world,” Lindley said. “That’s our new reality with international travel is anything that takes place anywhere else in the world is within 48 hours a direct threat to us.”
Caitlyn Ngam, an infection preventionist at Vail Health, said pandemic preparedness is something that’s in her job description, but it’s always been a sidebar to her day-to-day work. She described a global pandemic as her own “Super Bowl” — though talking about and preparing for such a thing with hypotheticals is a lot different than actually facing one in real-time.
“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” she 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.”
Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients, said the excitement of trying to identify the first patients in the county with COVID-19 symptoms from those coming into the ER who were “well worried” quickly faded as it became clear just how fast the virus was spreading.
“I was really the point guy,” he said. “We had screeners at the door and they would get a possible COVID situation and then my phone would ring and I would go and spend my time out in the parking lot. I would just sort through them and see who had to be seen in the ER and who could be seen elsewhere.”
Stephen said he got so good at the sorting process that he almost didn’t need the rapid-read thermometer and the pulse oximeter he used, among other tools, to identify patients with severe virus cases. He said he could almost sense if a patient needed to be admitted by having them pull down their mask.
“I saw so many people and screened so many people,” he said.
The peak, Stephen said, was March 14, the same day the resorts shut down. That’s when he said the ER admitted 16 patients and “probably turned just as many away.”
Stephen himself now suspects that he got the virus in February while traveling from his native Scotland back to the valley, but had no clue at the time that his symptoms could be tied to a respiratory virus that started in China.
One common goal
As the days and weeks wore on, and the pandemic settled in, health care workers described marathon days focused on one thing: protecting their community.
Fears and doubts were rampant, but they were secondary to the job at hand.
Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
“They showed up for work and got it done,” he 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.”
That protection came in many forms, from creating the state’s first drive-through testing facility to implementing a variety of new safety protocols in facilities up and down the valley to completely revamping local clinics to keep potential COVID-19 patients in one place away from other patients. There was also the months-long initiative from Vail Health to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly to avoid the backlogs that plagued the county and the state over the spring and summer, a push that finally bore fruit this fall.
And, as scientists worked around the globe to develop vaccines against the virus, hospital workers and public health officials prepped for the day the first shipment would arrive.
All of that work in 12 months, with Eagle County avoiding the worst of the state’s restrictions by never dipping into Level Red, has paid off.
The county has seen 5,163 confirmed cases of the virus. It has done 49,232 tests. Twenty community members have died — a number much lower than original projections. And since the first vaccine shots were administered in late December, more than 25,300 total doses of vaccine have been administered.
The fog of the pandemic is lifting.
“I think by May things are going to look amazing,“ Lindley said. ”The sun’s going to be out, it’s going to be warming up. And we’re going to be thinking about great community events, concerts, music in the park. I think all that’s going to start coming back this summer in a big way. And I’m excited just to see all our old friends hanging out together, relaxing, and starting to come back together in a non-physically distanced manner. OK, with more hugs. I see lots of hugs this summer.“
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bennet, Hickenlooper, Neguse to reintroduce the CORE Act
Nearly a year ago, Mike Greenwood invited Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet to meet with a group of Greenwood’s friends at Camp Hale, the famed World War II training site of the 10th Mountain Division located between Leadville and Red Cliff in Eagle County.
On Tuesday, Greenwood joined Bennet again on a call featuring former Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s newly elected U.S. senator, and U.S. Representative Joe Neguse, who represents a portion of Eagle County, to announce the reintroduction of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, the massive public lands bill that has been in the works for over a decade.
Greenwood issued a challenge to all three Democratic lawmakers to remember the legacy of those World War II soldiers as they again took up the bill in Congress.
“Those men would not give up,” he said. “Those men would keep charging. Those men would find a way to make it happen. I challenge Congress to find a way to make it happen. Don’t give up. Get this thing passed.”
A decade in the making
If the CORE Act is to finally pass, after more than 10 years of revisions and exhaustive feedback from constituents, the time is now, with Democrats back in control in the Senate and Joe Biden in the White House.
The bill would protect over 400,000 acres of public land in the state, establish new wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas, and protect Camp Hale as a first-of-its-kind National Historic Landscape. Included in the package are protections covering portions of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Gunnison, the Thompson Divide southwest of Glenwood Springs and the Continental Divide surrounding Camp Hale.
Hickenlooper, who beat incumbent Republican Cory Gardner in November’s election to help Democrats flip the Senate, agreed with his colleagues that the time has come to pass a piece of legislation that has such a broad coalition of support.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said. “I think it will take a lot of talking and a lot of work. It is so unusual to have a bill where the county commissioners, Republican and Democrat, agree that the land in their county, that’s part of this bill, should be protected in this manner. Everyone of these county commissioners supported it. When I’ve been saying that to Republicans and Democrats here, I’ve gotten initially positive responses. Now, obviously, I’m new to the Senate, but I’ve learned one thing and that’s that nothing is for sure. There are no lay-ups.”
Bennet said he’s optimistic that the bill will get a vote on the Senate floor this year, either as its own bill or in a package of public lands bills. In the previous Congress, Neguse was the bill’s main sponsor in the House, where it passed twice, only for the legislation to be stifled in the previously Republican-controlled Senate. Gardner said he would not support the bill, as written, and the Trump administration had threatened to veto the bill if it ever passed both houses of Congress.
“I really think the American people are tired of the dysfunction in Washington and I think that they expect us to move the country’s business forward,” Bennet said. “That has not been what we have been doing for the last four years and this is very, very high on my list of priorities. I know it’s very high on Senator Hickenlooper’s as well. We’re going to look for the earliest opportunity to pass it.”
Among those previously voting against the bill in the House were Colorado Reps. Ken Buck, Doug Lamborn and Scott Tipton, all Republicans. Tipton lost to newcomer Lauren Boebert in the Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses the western portion of Eagle County. Most of the protected lands in the CORE Act are in Boebert’s district, and Boebert made it clear during her campaign to defeat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush that she wasn’t in support of the bill in its current form.
That said, Bennet was confident that the bill would again find bipartisan support in the House and would face its greatest challenge in the Senate, where Democrats hold a deciding vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to break a 50-50 tie.
“The biggest enemy of any smart piece of legislation is dysfunction in the Senate,” Bennet said. “That’s what we have to find a way to overcome.”
He added: “I believe there has never been a public lands bill in Colorado that has had as much public process or public buy-in as this bill. And people understand that it’s critically important to pass it, both for the conservation values that it reflects, but also for Colorado’s economy.”
He then mentioned Sandy Treat, the beloved Vail icon and 10th Mountain Division veteran, who Neguse said he got to know well before Treat died in Sept. 2019.
“He was a wonderful man, who when he was alive, provided unwavering advocacy in the effort to forever maintain Camp Hale as a national historic landscape,” Neguse said. “He worked so hard and I distinctly remember talking to him in April 2019 in Summit County, visiting with him, and telling him we were going to make the Core Act a reality. The passage of the bill would honor his wish.”
Colorado begins planning to reintroduce gray wolves
Planning efforts to bring the controversial gray wolf back to parts of Colorado’s Western Slope are officially getting underway.
The state’s 11-member Parks and Wildlife Commission approved a process that aims to engage the public and scientists to develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves and adaptively manage the species, with state officials saying they see a “complicated, but achievable” path forward.
The commission’s Jan. 14 action follows voters’ slim passage of a ballot initiative last November that directs the state to reintroduce the gray wolf by the end of 2023. The gray wolf once inhabited every part of Colorado but was shot, trapped and poisoned until it was eradicated from the state by the 1940s.
“We have direction from the voters of Colorado to develop a reintroduction and management plan for gray wolves as transparently and expeditiously as possible,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This authorizes us to move forward in a phased approach that will allow us to be both efficient and flexible as we enact the plan. We will introduce wolves in Colorado no later than Dec. 31, 2023.”
The planning process proposed by CPW and approved by the commission will look to engage biologists and wolf experts as well as the public and stakeholder groups to balance widely varying public perspectives about reintroducing and managing the gray wolf in yet-to-be designated areas on Colorado’s Western Slope.
The ballot initiative saw strong support along the Front Range, while voters in a majority of Western Slope counties opposed it, with some people arguing that reintroduction is unnecessary with a handful of gray wolves already dispersing into northwest Colorado, most likely from Wyoming.
People and dozens of groups opposed to the initiative raised numerous concerns about the gray wolf’s reintroduction. Those included wolves’ impacts on ranchers and livestock, on elk, deer and moose populations and the hunting opportunities they support, wolves’ spread to other areas, and conflicts with people in an increasingly populated state.
The planning process will now seek a collaborative effort to address numerous controversial questions, including where gray wolves are reintroduced, how many wolves are released, and how populations are managed, both to ensure the gray wolf’s recovery in Colorado and to minimize conflicts.
Uncertain regulatory landscape
The planning effort is also expected to have to contend with the uncertain legal status surrounding the gray wolf.
Pointing to the recovery of wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently delisted gray wolves nationwide, ending their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The delisting turned management authority over gray wolves back to Colorado and other states, effective Jan. 4. But the action is widely expected to be challenged in court. That could result in years of legal uncertainty — or even in gray wolf management authority being turned back over to the federal government, an outcome that would require Colorado to get federal approvals to reintroduce wolves or undertake numerous management actions involving them. The gray wolf remains protected under Colorado state law.
“There is a huge concern about putting wolves on the ground and then they are relisted,” said commissioner Charles Garcia. “This commission needs to look forward to that possibility, which is very likely, and be ready for it.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis challenged the commission to approve a management plan and reintroduce gray wolves to designated areas on the Western Slope well before the Dec. 31, 2023 deadline imposed by the ballot initiative.
“You don’t want to be up against a deadline in three years. You also don’t want to rush it through and try to get wolves on the ground this year,” Polis said. He suggested that a reintroduction and management plan could be drafted and approved by the commission as soon as early next year.
“This is not about relitigating what voters have decided. That’s the law of Colorado, we will carry that out. It’s really about doing it in a way that ensures a broad coalition feels part of it, and that people’s voices are heard,” Polis said. “Even if they didn’t vote the prevailing way and that’s not their personal desire, that doesn’t mean they don’t have knowledge or expertise that might contribute to the success of the enterprise, or perhaps address even some of their own concerns.”
The process also calls for the creation of technical and stakeholder working groups to advise the commission on the wolf reintroduction and management plan, as well as contracting an external facilitator to help lead and mediate the process.
The technical working group, anticipated to include state and federal agencies and tribal representatives, will work on conservation objectives and management strategies and the development of programs to minimize conflicts and fairly compensate ranchers for livestock losses to wolves.
Stakeholder advisory group members are anticipated to include wolf advocacy groups, livestock producers, local and county governments, general citizens, and sportspersons. It will support the development of draft strategies by representing a range of viewpoints and geographic areas in the state, officials said.
Reid DeWalt, assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources at CPW, who will oversee the wolf planning process, noted that both groups will advise the Parks and Wildlife Commission, which will have the final say on approving a reintroduction and management plan.
While the approved process for developing a management plan and reintroducing gray wolves envisions taking three years, the process can be shortened as progress allows or as the commission sees fit.
“We want to start to engage the advisory and technical groups very quickly,” DeWalt told the commission. “Depending on the speed of this group, processes could be completed next year, or we could use time to continue conversations and look at the extended timeline, depending on the will of the commission.”
The process is anticipated to be challenging. Commission members reported receiving hundreds of emails leading up to their Jan. 13-14 meeting, and heard nearly an hour of public comment before voting to adopt the planning process.
Yet as the first voter-driven gray wolf reintroduction in America, the process also represents a major conservation initiative underway in the country, and an opportunity for the often-embattled sides of the wolf debate to try to work together, find common ground and shape a plan that can work for both wolves and people in Colorado.
The biggest challenges of that process are expected to be social and political, rather than biological, said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for CPW. He noted that debate over the gray wolf “encapsulates the full spectrum of human emotion.”
“Because the attention people pay to wolves is not balanced with the relatively minor impact wolves have on the lives of most people, wolf management will probably remain complicated, expensive, political and controversial,” Odell said.
And while there are numerous wolf reintroduction and management plans in other states to learn and draw experiences from, Colorado’s experience will undoubtedly be unique, Odell predicted. “There is no cookbook method to wolf management,” he said.
Coloradans are creating mutual aid networks to deal with devastating needs amid COVID-19
Since March, thousands of strangers in a Denver Facebook group have worked together to find an apartment for a mom and her 18-month-old who were homeless, deliver medications to people quarantined at home and feed hundreds of people who didn’t have enough to eat.
The group, Help Needed in Denver Metro COVID-19, is one of several mutual aid networks created by Coloradans to help communities weather the crushing need and instability created by the coronavirus pandemic.
For months, the couple who run the page, Jennifer and Kane Lisiecki, flitted about the metro area delivering groceries and picking up supplies to distribute. Their spare room turned into a storage depot for boxes of Pediasure, canned food and diapers.
Eight months in, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt and endanger Coloradans’ lives. Hundreds of thousands of Coloradans have lost work, a third of the state worries about having enough money to eat, and more than 2,200 people have died. Cases continue to rise, again reaching rates of infection that threaten to overwhelm Colorado’s health care systems.
In the wake of this loss, Coloradans across the state formed mutual aid networks to address people’s needs. The concept is simple: connect people who need something with others in their community who are in a position to help. The networks can be more nimble and tailored than large nonprofit organizations or government programs and are meant to meet needs that aren’t being met by those systems.