Faces of the Pandemic: Dr. Greg Balko sees “light at the end of the tunnel”

As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic.

The emergency medicine physician and director of board at Aspen Valley Hospital said that he and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.

“We’re able to keep up with the caseload, but it’s just mentally getting old at this point,” Balko said. “We’re just as tired of it as everybody else is, but it is what it is.”

Balko said he understands the desire to travel, to get out and do things. He feels it too.

And “there will be a time and a place for that again,” he said — just not yet.

“I get how people have been doing this (for) 10 or 11 months, and they want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” Balko said. “But I think people need to understand that it’s the worst now than has ever been.”

In the early months of the pandemic, the emergency room was so quiet it was almost “eerie,” he said; he attributes that March and April slowdown to stay-at-home orders and fears of contracting the virus in a hospital.

“Fast forward to now, we’re still seeing what we would normally see, but we’ve got COVID superimposed on it now,” he said. With record-high numbers of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, Balko said, “we’re seeing more and more patients on a daily basis, and we’re starting to see pretty sick patients again.”

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic.

The virus adds an additional strain on staff already treating patients who come in with other injuries and maladies that require urgent attention (think appendicitis, or a skiing injury). To boot, hospital staff must get “suited up” every time they enter the room when a patient has COVID-19.

“It’s on top of the volume that we already have,” Balko said. And it’s getting worse, not better.

“There’s a mental toll associated with it,” he said. “You do wonder, every time you go in the room, is one of you or your colleagues going to get the virus yourself?”

There is frustration, too, Balko said: he sees patients who have brushed aside guidelines designed to keep the community safe and hears stories of those who defy public health orders.

Most of the non-local patients he sees with COVID-19 contracted the virus here in Pitkin County, but some have eschewed the affidavit program and may be bringing more cases into the area, he said; Balko also is concerned about a post-holiday bump in cases caused by informal gatherings.

“I didn’t go out, but I certainly question how many people really respected the public health order,” Balko said. “As a result of that, are we going to have even a higher surge because people are irresponsible?”

Aspen Valley Hospital has planned for a surge if it were to occur; hospital capacity remains within comfortable levels, and the first round of vaccinations already underway for health care workers will help reduce the risk of a staffing shortage caused by employees in quarantine or isolation, Balko said.

But that comfortable capacity “could change rather quickly if things got even further out of control,” Balko said. Even though staff are able to keep up with the current caseload, the ever-increasing number of patients also leads to mental exhaustion — that aforementioned pandemic fatigue that especially applies to those on the front lines.

“If you look at it in the short term it could be pretty depressing,” he said.

Balko said he and other staff regularly talk about their concerns to cope with the mental burden of the COVID-19 pandemic; the hospital also maintains a relationship with mental health support services like Mind Springs Health and the Aspen Hope Center.

“We’re a pretty cohesive unit and team, and we’ve got each other’s back,” he said. “We’re just there for one another.”

The vaccine is a “light at the end of the tunnel” after a challenging year, Balko said. “I have a strong feeling that, come this summer, we’re going to be coming out of this.”

But even though an end is in sight through Balko’s lens, the doctor urged that there is still a long road ahead before a return to normal life.

“We’re going to get through this, but in the meantime, people need to be aware of the fact that the numbers that we’re seeing on a daily basis are the worst we’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s too early now to be letting your guard down.”

“Try and look out for your fellow man and do the responsible thing.”



Faces of the Pandemic: Despite lies, COVID-19 contact tracer finds job fulfilling

Sam Rose is Pitkin County’s lead contact tracer and disease investigator. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

People lie to Sam Rose a lot.

It’s been the one of the main frustrations of his job as Pitkin County Public Health’s lead COVID-19 contact tracer and disease investigator over the past six months.

“There’s a lot of dishonesty,” Rose said last week. “I have no way of proving it, but if it’s not total dishonesty, then they’re telling a half-truth, which feels like a whole lie when you’re trying to get to the bottom of something.”

Rose and his crew of six other contact tracers must not only interview everyone a person who tests positive for the virus has come into contact with, but must check-in with people in quarantine and isolation to see if they’re complying.

“It’s a very tough place to do contact tracing,” he said. “There’s a lot of comings and goings in this county.”

But despite that drawback, the job is fulfilling because he helps the community move more safely through the pandemic.

“I was just asking myself how much worse town would be if we weren’t here,” Rose said. “You know if you didn’t call certain people (and put them in) quarantine, everyone would have it.”

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic.

Rose, 27, started as Pitkin County’s first full-time contact tracer July 6 and had personally dealt with 420 of the county’s 1,100-plus positive cases as of last week. He also volunteers at the Aspen Fire Department and Response, which provides help for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in the Roaring Fork Valley, and said the job of contact tracing provides similar benefits to the community.

“I do enjoy talking to people and helping others,” he said.

Often tracking positive cases involves an employee of a hotel, restaurant or other local business who was in contact with someone who tested positive but hadn’t yet showed signs of the disease, Rose said.

When he or one of the county’s other contact tracers quarantines that person and they later test positive, he said he feels satisfaction that he’s helping protect residents and businesses by limiting spread of the virus.

And while it might seem like Rose and his team would be the front-line targets for people’s COVID anger, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

“Very, very few people get mad at me,” Rose said. “You would think it’s thankless, but people are really thankful.”

He said he wants to continue as a contact tracer through the end of the pandemic, though with cases continuing to grow it’s not yet clear when that will be.

“I don’t want to sound too dire, but I want to say that (COVID-19) has found itself into every nook and cranny here in Pitkin County,” Rose said. “Right now, I feel like Pitkin County can’t catch a break.”

Faces of the Pandemic: Making sure the ski lifts keep turning

Andy Elliott, the lift operations manager for Snowmass Ski Area, poses for a photo on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020, on Fanny Hill. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)

While there is little doubt about Aspen’s fondness for uphilling, reality is most people wouldn’t enjoy skiing nearly as much without the chairlifts.

In many ways, those lifts serve as the main arteries of a ski town. And without the lifties to keep them moving, the town wouldn’t have much of a pulse.

“It’s really a jack-of-all-trades position and really the lifeblood of a ski resort, as far as I’m concerned,” Andy Elliott said of the lifties. “There are not a whole lot of folks that want to come out to a ski resort if you don’t have chairlifts running.”

Elliott knows the importance of a liftie as well as anyone. As the lift operations manager for Snowmass Ski Area, it’s his job to make sure skiers and snowboarders are fully able to enjoy their time on the mountain by making sure the chairlifts are run as efficiently as possible.

The lift operators, better known as lifties, are at the front line of this operation, and without them there wouldn’t be any chairlifts to get skiers up the slope. This includes the mechanics, who literally maintain the nuts and bolts of the entire system.

“Frankly, the most essential department would be the lift mechanics. If we don’t have the guys that build and maintain the lifts, then we don’t have lifts to run and everything kind of falls like a domino after that,” Elliott said. “The lift operators, they are typically the second ones on the hill right after the mechanics, and they are typically the last ones off the hill after everybody else has gotten off the chairlifts.”

A ski town without lifties is a dreary one, as Aspen found out back in March when the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shut down the mountains for the season. Instead of a final month of glorious spring skiing, COVID-19 sent everyone indoors and the stationary lifts became nothing but reminders of a pre-pandemic world.

Elliott, who hails from Marblehead, Massachusetts, took over his role as lift operations manager in Snowmass back in May, when so much still remained unknown about the novel coronavirus. He’s called the Roaring Fork Valley home since 2011 and has worked his way up the food chain, finally getting the promotion to the top of the liftie hierarchy at an incredibly difficult time.

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

“There were definitely some times it felt a little bit overwhelming. A lot of I’s to dot, a lot of T’s to cross. But the support has been phenomenal from everyone,” Elliott said. “Our ultimate goal at the start of the summer was to get open and stay open. We ended up having the busiest summer we’ve ever had here at the bike park.”

Needing an escape from the confines of COVID quarantine, people flocked to the trails by mountain bike over the summer. But as the pandemic raged on, questions about access to the ski hills during winter became a concern, and Elliott was among those who helped come up with a plan to make it possible.

“Most of our training is online now. Most of our paperwork and documentation we used to do by hand is now all digital, for the most part. The masks, obviously, that’s a new thing for a lot of people,” Elliott said. “The lift lines are definitely a little bit longer, but that’s more the length of the line, not the length of time waiting. You are still looking at under 10 minutes, for the most part, on even a busy day at the Village Express, which is pretty darn good compared to a lot of the other resorts in the state.”

Elliott oversees about 135 employees at Snowmass this winter, down only about 15 or so from a typical ski season. With travel and visa restrictions limiting what is usually a robust international staff, Aspen Skiing Co. turned to the many unemployed locals to fill those positions and keep the lifts moving at a time when people needed it the most.

“It’s a very big job, but I have a very good staff supporting me. Management has been super helpful,” Elliott said. “It’s been a collective effort, and it’s been outstanding.”

Elliott has had to manage the pandemic the same as everyone. He remembers his last turns of the winter back in March and felt the same pain of a season cut much too short. But with the record numbers the Snowmass Bike Park hosted over the summer, there was little doubt about the importance the outdoor world could play in maintaining proper mental health during the pandemic.

Which is why getting the chairlifts back open for the ski season was of such significance, and why the lifties are such a vital piece in maintaining a semblance of normalcy during a trying time in history.

“Just to have the lifts turning, it’s extremely uplifting,” Elliott said. “It was life-changing and definitely reaffirming for why I’m here. I love to ski. It’s what I’m here for ultimately, and I get to live the dream every single day.”


Faces of the Pandemic: When phone line becomes front line for COVID-19 financial aid

It was a hectic and heroic three months for a handful of individuals who at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic put thousands of dollars into working families’ hands, many of whom lost their jobs or got sick with COVID-19 and couldn’t work.

“It was 12 hours a day, seven days a week, that was the pace of work,” said Dr. Barbara Freeman, founder and team leader of LaMedichi Savings Club.

LaMedichi has dispersed millions of dollars that predominately came through an emergency fund set up by MANAUS, a local nonprofit that focuses on social justice through community organizing.

And organize they did. About a half dozen ambassadors of LaMedichi spent hours and hours each day talking on the phone with people in their Latino community, listening to their stories, their plight and building a relationship with them, which is a fundamental principal in community organizing.

The result has been a $1,000 grant to each family, with $950 of it going directly to them in cash and $50 into an app-based savings account administered by LaMedichi, a project of MANAUS.

The savings club was set up in 2018 and now has 1,500 members who can save whatever amount their budget allows and they can earn rewards.

Freeman explained that LaMedichi was established for people to prepare for medium- and long-term needs, and giving an underrepresented population an opportunity to gain some financial acumen in how to save and why it’s important.

But COVID created an immediate need for people to feed their children, pay the rent and keep the lights on.

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

So through LaMedichi’s partnership with the nonprofit, Valley Settlement, also a project of MANAUS, average, ordinary citizens in the Roaring Fork Valley picked up the ball and ran with it.

As they were establishing processes and qualification guidelines for the grants, they also were fielding hundreds of requests that came in each day.

They became an efficient machine, Freeman said, responding to people within two or three days and getting money into people’s hands within a week of applying.

When the local economy shutdown in March and stay-at-home orders were issued, people lost their jobs at restaurants, construction sites and in hotels.

“Most of the people who got help from the MANAUS Emergency Fund are women who clean houses, hotels and for companies, and many work in restaurants,” said Ingrid Zuniga, one of LaMedichi’s ambassadors. “A lot of them are single mothers with full-time jobs … there has been a huge impact to them.”

Zuniga estimated that she has talked to 1,000 people as part of the grant process.

“Every single person has said ‘we have been in this country X number of years and we’ve never asked for help,'” she said. “I approved a woman who said to me, ‘I’m so happy you listened to me and didn’t judge me.'”

Zuniga said the Latino population feels vulnerable and that’s one reason they don’t ask for help.

“They say, ‘we don’t deserve it’ or they are scared to ask,” Zuniga said. “We have to tell them we are not a government organization.”

All of the ambassadors are Latino, so applicants feel comfortable opening up to them because they know they understand.

“People are informed in their home language and they appreciate the empathy and being listened to,” Freeman said. “All of the ambassadors are from the community and they have those stories.”

Ambassadors hear about the suffering from not only the pandemic but also cancer, death, family issues and mental health on top of economic pressures.

“There is so much happening right now,” Zuniga said. “We have too many stories.”

Freeman acknowledged the difficulty of she and her team members listening to so much sadness and desperation, but they care so deeply for one another that somehow they get through it.

Zuniga said she and her team members frequently share with each other their concerns, and are mindful of when it’s too much to carry other people’s burdens.

“We talk to each other and ask how we are feeling,” she said. “It’s not easy listening to these hard stories but by sharing with each other we can let the problems go and out of our heads.”

Zuniga shared a story of a woman from Parachute who called LaMedichi three weeks ago and said she is a cancer survivor but the disease had returned. Her husband is in construction and does not speak English, and their son is autistic.

“I went to another ambassador who has a special needs kid and I asked her, ‘can you take this case?'” Zuniga said, adding her colleague can be much more helpful because she knows more resources specific for that family. “It’s not about you get $1,000, bye. It’s about listening and being there. We try to give them confidence and they can trust us.”

The emergency fund grants are meant to be a financial bridge to get to the next month for many families, but Freeman said she worries that as the pandemic wears on, people are falling way behind.

“My big fear is that a lot of people are behind on rent and medical bills, and have mounting debt,” she said. “As we emerge from this we hope people start regularly saving.”

Freeman said between 8% and 10% of the savings club members are starting to consistently save.

“A lot of people have withdrawn because they need it,” she said.

In the valley’s Latino population, 60% of them can’t come up with $200 for an emergency, based on a local survey done by LaMedichi.

“That leaves them really vulnerable” to payday outfits or loan sharks, Freeman said, adding many people have already borrowed from family members who are tapped out. “They are selling things, defaulting.”

The emergency funds coming in and administered through LaMedichi will last through January.

The MANAUS Emergency Fund is funded by several sources, including individual donors, the Aspen Community Foundation and through two grants from the Colorado COVID Fund, the latter of which Freeman applied for.

Along with the Denver-based Left Behind Workers Fund, LaMedichi, in collaboration with other local partners like Valley Settlement, Aspen Family Connections, English in Action, Midvalley Family Practice’s Healthy All Together and the Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork Schools, has doled out $2.5 million, $2 million of which was locally distributed.

“It’s a big deal, it’s deepened relationships and it does take the whole community,” Freeman said. “We are going to need each other going forward.”


Barbara Freeman, founder and team leader at LaMedichi, a savings club for the Latino community in the Roaring Fork Valley, at work.

Faces of the Pandemic: Aspen Hope’s April Brooks supports clients in crisis

April Brooks, a crisis clinician and therapist at the Aspen Hope Center, has been helping people struggling with mental health during this difficult year in the Roaring Fork Valley on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, fear and uncertainty defined 2020 — and shaped the landscape of mental health services this year.

“A lot of people aren’t leaving their home, and they’re scared, and it’s affecting mental health completely,” said April Brooks, a crisis clinician and therapist at the Aspen Hope Center. “You walk past someone on the street and they kind of jump off the sidewalk. How do we respond to that?”

Brooks has been on the front lines of that response alongside other mental health workers at the center to meet the needs of the Roaring Fork Valley community during a particularly difficult year for many.

Aspen Hope Center adapted to COVID-19 restrictions by offering telehealth sessions and socially-distanced, masked-up meetings with clients; the organization is “creative and flexible” to meet clients in a way that they are comfortable, according to Brooks.

“I do feel like this valley has really done a lot to try and take care of one another… and (be) respectful to one another,” she said.

But the COVID-19 has presented new challenges in how Brooks provides guidance to people in crisis.

In any other year, Brooks could help a client in crisis “shift focus” by making plans and creating goals for the future over the course of multiple meetings. But amid the many uncertainties of 2020, that’s been near-impossible to do, Brooks said.

“No one can plan for things,” Brooks said. “Everything seems to have been paused, or is in an ever-changing cycle.”

That uncertainty is one of many “compounded stressors” that can create a crisis situation — a tipping point at which “the stressors outweigh their coping skills,” according to Brooks. Those stressors could be anything: financial hardship, familial conflict and environmental changes can combine with internal factors like anxiety and depression.

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

The pandemic certainly plays a role: This year especially, people are struggling not only with environmental stressors but also “the unknowns of anxiety and what is coming next,” Brooks said.

“We’ve definitely had an increase in volume for crisis calls and also an increase in volume for people proactively to start therapy to prevent crisis,” she said.

But part of that increased volume could be the product of candid conversations about mental health and the breaking down of a “stigma barrier” that may have once prevented people from seeking help, Brooks noted.

“Maybe before, people didn’t (reach out) because they were trying to handle and cope with things within themselves or within a unit, but now … people are really talking about mental health more,” she said. “It’s almost becoming acceptable.”

Amid the increased volume and the weight of pandemic uncertainty, some days can be challenging, Brooks admits.

“It’s hard to hear people’s intense … psychological pain and the higher levels of stress in people feeling like things aren’t going to get better, because we don’t know when things will get better,” she said. “You see things and you hear things that you do take home.”

She takes comfort in knowing she was available to help others through difficult times. To cope, she leans on a support system of coworkers, meets with outside counsel and there, and practices gratitude for her job and for her home.

“My purpose is to help people and I’m grateful for that,” she said. “Seeking outside counsel and therapy has definitely been something that I’ve accessed this year, and it’s helped keep things processed so I can help others.”

The Aspen Hope Center encourages other frontline workers to do the same: The center offers support and resources to community partners like first responders and law enforcement who need to debrief and process what they witness on the job.

“We are seeing things that other people don’t see,” Brooks said.

Part of that ‘unseen’ experience comes from a trained eye: Brooks believes crisis clinicians can “see or sense fear” in people as they pass by on the street or in the aisles of a grocery store. That fear has been especially prevalent this year amid anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus as well as the tangential stressors that have accompanied it: grief, loss, isolation, new conflicts.

“The lack of connection, it saddens me — people are mean to one another,” she said. “I had an individual tell me yesterday they witnessed a mask fight. … It feels like we’re at war with each other.

In a difficult, isolated year, a hello or a wave could go a long way.

“I think that human kindness is something that I just really noticed, people … need to come back to,” Brooks said. “You never know what someone’s going through.”


Faces of the Pandemic: Teaching teachers how to teach online

As Aspen High School's technology integration specialist, Kim Zimmer’s job has been to help teachers and students with online learning during the pandemic.
Courtesy photo

Since the pandemic broke in March, Kim Zimmer’s job has been getting hundreds of Aspen High School teachers and students on the same screen.

“High school is high-stakes time for students,” said Zimmer, Aspen High’s technology integration specialist. She also teaches broadcast journalism. “We have kids that really want to achieve and kids that are in the IB program and students that really have been dedicated to being successful, so I didn’t want us to lapse in the quality of instruction.”

Before the virus jolted the spring semester at schools across the country, remote learning had not been put into practice at the Aspen School District. New to teachers’ professional development was their having to learn fast about online instruction. Students also felt the pressure.

“Going back to March and April and May, it all seems like a blur,” Zimmer said. “We were all trying to survive.”

Zimmer, now in her second year at the high school, had a background suited for challenge. She had worked in educational technology for 16 years. As well, she had experience in broadcast journalism — and already had helped Aspen students launch a news program — so working on deadlines was nothing new.

“I had to step up,” she said. “I knew I had the skill-set and the experience to take on the role and help the high school transition to remote learning.”

Her job also was to arm teachers with the confidence they would get through remote learning in spite of the frustrations and challenges it spawned, whether brought on by technical difficulties — an internet outage, for instance — or deciding whether to use Zoom or Google Meet for online classes.

“We were trying to keep teachers comfortable every step of the way,” she said.

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

Principal Sarah Strassburger said Zimmer has the right makeup for the job.

“Kim Zimmer’s enthusiasm and tech savvy, not to mention her good sense of humor and approachability, have set the stage for teachers to try new things and to take risks to elevate their craft in this new remote reality of education,” she said. “Everyone has been stepping up and trying new tech tools and Kim is always there to lend a helping hand. We are so fortunate to have her.”

Zimmer said a supportive principal team has been key to her role, as well as other people who work in IT.

Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry was the high school principal when the pandemic broke out, with Strassburger his lieutenant. Strassburger has since been promoted to principal, while Becky Oliver is the assistant principal at the 500-plus student high school.

“Encouragement from the assistant principal and principal at the time (the spring) was important,” said Zimmer, adding she also had to help teachers keep up their heads.

“I did a lot of talking teachers off the ledge,” she said.

The second half of the spring semester was fully remote for the high school, and Zimmer wanted to begin the summer by building on what had been started in March and April. She held virtual meetings during the summer with teachers, parents and students to help them better grasp remote learning. The participation rate was in the 90% range, she said.

“Instead of using paper planners,” Zimmer said, she introduced students to Rocketbook, a reusable electronic notebook that can upload handwritten notes to places like DropBox or iCloud.

Zimmer has worked from both home and on campus during the pandemic. The high school is scheduled to return to online learning Monday and will likely continue that way through the spring semester.

Younger students — from pre-K through sixth grade — are scheduled to return to school Monday. The fifth- and sixth-graders also are on a cohort system.

Zimmer said she believes the high school is well situated to continue remote learning through the upcoming semester. At this point, consistency is tantamount, she said.

“There is definitely a chance we will be in remote for the rest of the year,” she said.

Even so, Zimmer said she has missed the face-to-face interactions that come with daily campus life.

“The one thing I’ve noticed is there are still conversations being had,” she said of faculty members. Only now they are wearing masks and practicing other safety measures. “I deeply miss the hallway chats and water-cooler chats where you see a teacher and it reminds you to ask them a question because you saw them.”



Faces of the Pandemic: Long hours, but improved scenery for county’s epidemiologist

Josh Vance was working in West Texas for the Texas Department of Health earlier this year when he saw the posting for an epidemiologist needed in Pitkin County.

The COVID-19 pandemic was still in the early stages and the 30-year-old California native said he wanted to be able to help out. Plus, there the lifestyle advantages of the Roaring Fork Valley over Midland, Texas, were appealing.

“I love it (here),” Vance said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to live and work and play in this part of the country. It’s certainly different than living in Texas.”

Vance parachuted into Pitkin County mid-pandemic and began work June 15. It didn’t take long for him to notice the difference between the bird’s eye view of working for the state and the boots-on-the-ground view of working for a county.

“It was just a complete change from what I was used to,” he said.

His work for the state of Texas tended to be insulated, and on the policy level. On the local level, there’s a completely different set of people who play into decisions, from local politicians to local business concerns to making sure all members of society have access to health equity, Vance said.

The job has required learning the best strategies to address different audiences and the best methods to communicate with local residents, he said. It’s also required his attendance at meetings.

“There’s way more meetings here at the county level,” Vance said. “Things just flow differently and more rapidly than at the state level. You’re really in the thick of things (locally).”

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

The biggest hurdle has been getting the balance right.

“Making the right decisions for the population you’re serving,” he said. “I would say that is most challenging of all.”

Vance and his team of eight disease investigators and contact tracers have not worked eight-hour days during the pandemic, especially lately when cases began surging in November. Vance said his day usually begins about 7 a.m. and ends between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

“It’s been long hours,” he said, and he’s tried to guard against burnout. “If you take a day off, you get behind. It’s hard to make sure we’re staying on top of things.”

If he or his team miss one thing, it could mean an outbreak or someone in need of food goes hungry or one of many other negative outcomes, he said.

“It can morph into something a lot longer,” Vance said. “There’s a lot of pieces to keep up on.”

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock praised Vance, particularly the detailed COVID-19 data analysis he produces each day.

“I would put our data up against every other county in the state,” Peacock said. “And that’s largely due to the work Josh has done for us.”

In addition, Vance and Environmental Health Director Kurt Dahl have put together a solid contact-tracing team, he said.

“We were lucky to get Josh in our organization and on our team,” Peacock said.


Faces of the Pandemic: Through the lens of a TSA agent

Within days of the first reported COVID-19 cases in Aspen in early March by a group of Australians, Transportation Security Administration agent Bob Helmus who worked at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, came down with a scratchy throat and shortness of breath.

“I was concerned that I had it and no one really knew how contagious it was or what was going on,” said Helmus, an Old Snowmass resident. “At the time, there were all these question marks.”

He was told by his employer to stop reporting to work and get tested.

COVID tests were few and far between back then, but Helmus was able to convince his physician to use one of his limited specimen swabs.

After almost two weeks, he got the results back: negative. Helmus had been quarantining for 14 days before going back out on the front line, which once lockdown orders were in place, was pretty quiet as hardly anyone was coming through the airport.

But once summer hit and the local economy opened, air travelers were showing up.

Helmus said he and his fellow TSA agents were anxious about their exposure but followed protocols first set up by the airport, and later by the federal agency.

“There were people who were working and were scared,” Helmus said. “We had to screen people, get close to people and touch their things.”

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

But with fast action by personnel at the airport, like installing Plexiglas and establishing 6-foot social distancing rules, Helmus and his co-workers felt more comfortable.

The TSA was slower to react, and the feeling was that administrators were hesitant to make a decision for fear of being held accountable.

“They didn’t want to be held responsible so they didn’t pull the trigger as fast” as the agency did when the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak occurred in 2011, when Helmus first started as a TSA agent, he said.

A media representative for TSA didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Rich Englehart, interim airport director and the county’s deputy manager, said the staff at Sardy Field made more than 150 improvements to the facility in response to public health orders.

“The airport staff went into full-on mode,” Englehart said, adding that Sardy Field was one of the leading airports in the country to take such quick measures against the spread of the coronavirus.

That included a lot of educational signs, the installation of Plexiglas and hand-sanitizing stations, and fogging the facility nightly, among myriad other measures.

“It’s a big undertaking,” Englehart said, “but it’s worth it.”

As a result, no one who works at the airport has contracted COVID-19 from there.

Helmus said none of his former co-workers have been sick, and some TSA agents have been inoculated with the vaccine.

“Everyone stayed healthy in that environment,” he said.

He said he watched passengers evolve from not wearing face masks at the beginning to taking aggressive measures like a family Helmus screened who wore full hazmat suits.

“The majority of people were pretty good and that made us feel safer too,” he said.

A former Basalt firefighter and EMT, Helmus said he had been taking care of himself and was using whatever precautionary measures there were, whether it was bringing his own N95 mask or safety goggles to work.

He was supposed to retire in May but stayed with the TSA until September, and now Helmus, 65, is behind the wheel driving a Snowmass Village shuttle a couple times a week for something to do.

Englehart said he appreciates the dedication and work from the people on front lines.

“I absolutely admire those employees who provide services in this environment,” he said. “They are critical at the airport.”


Faces of the Pandemic: Keeping the valley rolling through the pandemic

Peter Magierski has been working for RFTA for a year and a half and continues to drive a bus amid the pandemic.

For years, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority has been the valley’s annual lifeline for millions of workers, skiers and people without vehicles. And that didn’t stop with the pandemic.

The public bus system never shut down when most of the rest of the world came to a screeching halt March 14.

It was a sense of pride, duty and simple survival for many drivers, including 36-year-old Peter Magierski, an operator for one-and-a-half years.

“We keep coming. We keep coming no matter what,” Magierski said. “We chose to work in public service and transporting our community. People are going to work and they count on us.”

RFTA scaled back three times in the three weeks after the ski areas and many businesses closed March 15. It scaled up starting in May and has most routes back in service this winter. Buses can only be filled to 50% capacity, so RFTA is devoting more resources to providing a roughly equal level of service as in the past.

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

At one point early in the pandemic, about 35% of drivers were out ill or taking precautions, according to Ed Cortez, a driver as well as president of the local chapter of a union representing the drivers.

Magierski never sat out, but said the threat of catching the coronavirus was always on the minds of drivers.

“Absolutely, all the bus drivers in the break room were talking,” he said.

Employees of RFTA walk back into the bus station in Aspen on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The drivers come in contact with people from all walks of life in the valley, including homeless folks who might be among the most vulnerable to the virus. Drivers could not help but be concerned when people were coughing and sneezing, Magierski said.

The drivers talked to their union representatives, who in turn talked to safety officers and RFTA executives about safety concerns and potential solutions. The planning took a couple of weeks, but then safety enhancements rapidly fell into place.

“I feel here in the valley we took quick action when it came to safety,” Magierski said.

Peter Magierski has been working for RFTA for a year and a half and continues to drive a bus during the pandemic.

Masks were required for drivers and passengers. Fares were initially eliminated to reduce contact and now no cash is accepted.

Buses with back doors are used for service to further limit contact. Shields have been built around the drivers’ seats. The first few rows of passenger seats are off limits. Buses are disinfected after their shifts. Capacity is limited to 50% and passengers must be socially distanced.

RFTA employees are able to borrow as many as 160 hours of sick time and pay it back, in case they fell ill or need to avoid work as a precaution.

“Me personally, I didn’t feel very threatened,” Magierski said. But some of the older drivers and those dealing with medical issues were more concerned.

“They don’t want to get COVID,” he said. “They’re scared.”

One driver became critically ill early in the pandemic and recovered in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. The prevailing thought at the time was, “This is a lot more serious than people thought,” Magierski said.

Magierski was working the same shift as another driver who ended up testing positive for the virus. As part of RFTA’s policy, those who were potentially exposed were quarantined for 14 days. Magierski never got ill but he had to borrow for the time off. It’s tough to sit out as a precaution.

“We need our jobs,” he said.

It’s night and day between conditions now and early in the pandemic, according to Magierski. “Now we don’t have that many drivers out,” he noted.

Peter Magierski has been working for RFTA for a year and a half and continued driving his bus with the pandemic.

Magierski drives primarily BRT service, the express buses that make the fewest stops while serving the Roaring Fork and lower Colorado River valleys. Passenger numbers have climbed now that the economy is cranked up for ski season.

RFTA drivers and other employees realize they play a critical role in the valley’s economy. Magierski said it would be nice to see that dedication and effort under duress rewarded.

“A lot of us feel we should be getting a bonus or hazard pay,” he said.


Faces of the Pandemic: “Compassion goes a long ways”

Gallery caption: Faces of the Pandemic

Less than a month after the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the Roaring Fork Valley in mid-March, registered nurse Maria McHale was helping people who were feeling ill. She and her colleagues haven’t let up since.

On April 16, McHale was part of a team working for hours in an open-sided tent to provide tests and screenings of people with COVID symptoms in El Jebel. They shrugged off working in cold temperatures with wet snow falling.

McHale, 33, works at MidValley Family Practice, which has established a nonprofit arm to provide COVID tests and consultations for people regardless of their ability to pay. The practice also teamed with Eagle County Public Health and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance to provide regular free tests and care via a mobile unit in the El Jebel area, with a focus on the immigrant population.

McHale speaks fluent Spanish so she is a vital link between the health care providers and the immigrant community. She was able to share with people safe practices and what they needed to do when they were sick.

McHale acknowledged the work can be stressful. She has treated people that later were required to be intubated because of the severity of their illness.

“At first I was scared,” McHale said. “Eventually, you have to get past the fear.”

She didn’t want to bring home the virus to her husband and young son or her mother, who is their primary child care provider.

Despite the concerns, she’s found three sources of inspiration. First, she knows she and her colleagues are providing care and education that otherwise might not have reached some of their patients, particularly early in the pandemic.

Free testing sites have only recently proliferated in the valley. MidValley Family Practice remains one of the few clinics seeing patients in person.

Faces of the Pandemic

A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic

Second, she finds inspiration in friends who work in intensive care units of local hospitals. She said they are “heroes” who are most at risk while caring for those most sick from COVID.

“I consider myself a front-line worker,” she said, “but not like the nurses in the ICU.”

McHale has also been inspired to help others by thinking of her own family. “How would I want my parents treated?” she asked.

“This is worth it,” McHale said of the effort.

It’s frustrating to her that after the Roaring Fork Valley and adjacent regions saw such a high number of COVID cases last spring that more precautions weren’t taken to avoid a repeat performance.

“The second wave has been the really big downer for me,” she said. “It was predicted to be a tough winter,” she said. “Now we’re seeing that.”

Registered Nurse Maria McHale gathers information before testing a man for COVID-19 at the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance bus in El Jebel on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Despite testing and treating hundreds of ill people over the past nine months, she has avoided infection. A nephew living with her parents became ill, so she and her entire extended family got tested.

McHale quarantined for a week while awaiting the test result, which was negative. That broadened her understanding and compassion for people who are struggling through illness and associated problems, such as loss of work and inability to pay bills.

“It made me realize, ‘Oh, wow, this is what they’re really talking about,'” McHale said. “Sometimes you don’t understand a situation completely until you’re placed in it.

“Most people, it sounds like they want to do the right thing but also what I have learned is that the socio-economic roles are impacting that because people live paycheck to paycheck,” McHale continued.

People who continue to work despite illness might be doing so out of necessity rather than selfishness.

“I would have to say if I didn’t have my husband, I wouldn’t be able to stay at home with quarantine for 14 days,” she said. “So, I understand these people.”

But McHale also has strong feelings about individual responsibility during a pandemic. If a person is ill enough or concerned enough that they get a test or treatment, she feels they have a moral obligation to take proper steps to avoid spreading the coronavirus. That includes social distancing, wearing a mask and quarantining while waiting to find out if they have the virus.

“It’s not about the lab result. It’s about taking the proper actions,” she said.

The team at the clinic received their COVID vaccinations on Dec. 18. McHale said she initially felt guilty and “non-deserving” of being among the first people to receive the vaccine. But while talking to colleagues at lunch one day, she came to realize they can only care for others if they stay healthy themselves.

“I can’t wait until it rolls out to the public and I can’t wait to see the impact that it makes,” she said.

McHale has another wish for the New Year.

“Be nice to your health people because they’re so burned out,” she said. “We’re working double. We’re working COVID and the normal health care services. Compassion goes a long ways.”