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Pride Month kicks off in Eagle County with celebration of LGBTQ rights, community

People walk in the the Avon Pride in the Park Parade Saturday, June 12, 2021, at Nottingham Park in Avon. The event included a drag show, parade and dance party celebrating the LGBTQ community.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

Each June, cities, towns and communities across the United States celebrate Pride Month to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, the start of a movement of queer liberation that continues to impact many lives to this day.

In 2020, Eagle County made history of its own when Britny Rose organized the first LGBTQ Pride event. The grassroots event quickly gathered support from the community and grew in its second year as a Pride in the Park celebration at Nottingham Lake.

Now, two years later, the county has its first LGBTQ support and advocacy nonprofit, Mountain Pride, that is going and “bigger and better” for Pride Month, according to the organization’s executive director, Madison Partridge.

“We’ve just worked to amplify every year, and this year we’ve definitely done that,” Partridge said. “We know how important this month is to our history, to who our community is, and why we’re here and what we hope to accomplish.”

While the inception of Pride Month traces back to 1969, it continues each year as the LGBTQ community and its allies “keep working to better our community, build better support and move forward,” Partridge said.

“We’re seeing that right now with over 300 bills trying to be passed across the United States that are anti-LGBTQ, and there’s ones that have been passed,” she said, adding that Pride month is about “recognizing where we came from and recognizing that there still is work to be done.”

In Eagle County, lots of work has been done to grow LGBTQ advocacy, and Mountain Pride has seen growth of allyship, both from individuals and from local businesses and organizations.

“It’s such a beautiful thing; we’re seeing such a strong ripple effect of that visibility, representation and community,” Partridge said. “Community is where we’re from and how we started; Britny was just a transwoman who wanted to connect with more members of the queer community, myself and the original Pride in the Park planning community just wanted to see representation, make friends and build our community because we’re here.”

And as Pride Month kicks off this year, Mountain Pride reached out to the Eagle County Board of Commissioners to see if they would be interested in officially proclaiming the month of June as Pride in the county.

“They were super supportive from the get-go, and we just got confirmation that this is something they feel so strongly about,” Partridge said.

The commissioners will officially sign a proclamation at the board’s Tuesday meeting. The proclamation holds that “Eagle County is committed to supporting visibility, dignity and equity for LGBTQ+ people in our diverse community.”

Commissioner Matt Scherr said that this proclamation is an expression of the community as well as the values that the commissioners uphold as local representatives.

“I think that’s what we’re doing in this proclamation, just to show that, generally speaking as a community, we want to be one of compassion and inclusion,” he said. “It really is specifically about inclusivity and making sure that everybody feels welcome and included and cared for.”

This message, Scherr said, aligns with the county’s mission “to make a better Eagle County for all.”

“That emphasis is really just about inclusion. And specifically where there are populations like LGBTQ+ who have had particular struggles with exclusion, and this is an opportunity for us to give that message of inclusion to those groups that have struggled,” he said.

This proclamation, Partridge said, is a demonstration that the LGBTQ community is “seen here in the community and validated for our experiences and who we are.”

Pride Week

"Dee Lusion" performs during the first act of the Avon Pride in the Park drag show on Saturday, June 12, 2021, in Nottingham Park in Avon. This year, Pride in the Park will feature two drag shows.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

As Pride goes bigger and better this year, this growth is seen not only in the schedule of events as well as in the number of sponsors and activities at Pride in the Park, but with the addition of multiple events from local businesses and organizations.

This includes fundraising events for Mountain Pride such as a Pride Mixer cocktail class at Hovey & Harrison on Wednesday, June 9; a drink special at the Grant Hyatt; a giveaway from Avanti Tattoo and more.

“Our allies are showing up outside of Pride and Pride Week,” Partridge said. “We’re seeing our local community stand up and take ownership of visibility and allyship.”

With this growth of allyship and partnership, Mountain Pride is adding a wide range of “Pride Week” events leading up to Pride in the Park on June 18. This includes a Monday evening hike and ice cream social, drag queen storytime at The Bookworm, its annual Big Gay Give Back Day, a coffee and game night at Color Coffee in Eagle and a Friday night Pre-Party at Two Arrows. Plus, it’s wrapping up the week with a Drag Brunch at Vintage Vail on Sunday.

To learn more about Mountain Pride and Pride Month as well as its year-round opportunities for education, community building and support, visit MountainPride.org.


Monday, June 13: Pride Soul Dirt Hike and Ice Cream, starting at 6 p.m. in Edwards

Tuesday, June 14: Drag Queen Storytime with The Bookworm, starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Riverwalk amphitheater in Edwards

Wednesday, June 15: Big Gay Give Back Day, starting at 3 p.m. at the Mountain Valley Horse Rescue in McCoy

Thursday, June 16: Coffee & Game Night, starting at 6 p.m. at Color Coffee in Eagle

Friday, June 17: The Official Pride Pre-Party, starting at 9 p.m. at Two Arrows Coffee & Bar in Vail

Sunday, June 19: Drag Brunch, starting at 9:15 a.m. at Vintage Vail in Vail


When: Saturday, June 18, from noon to 7 p.m.

Where: Harry A. Nottingham Park in Avon

noon: Yoga in the Park1 p.m.: Pride Kick Off2 p.m.: Drag Show Teas-her3 p.m.: Pawshion show4 p.m.: Out and Proud Drag Show5 p.m.: Pride Parade6 p.m.: DJ and dance party

    Early peak runoff for Western Slope rivers

    The Crystal River just below Avalanche Creek on June 3. Streamflows near this location peaked on May 19 at 1,840 cfs according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.
    Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Rivers in western Colorado have already peaked for the season, creating challenging conditions for reservoir managers and rafting companies.

    Fueled by spring windstorms that deposited snow-devouring dust on the mountain snowpack, most streams saw their peak flows between May 19 and 21 for this year, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

    On May 19, the Crystal River near Avalanche Creek hit its high mark for the spring at about 1,870 cubic feet per second. On that day in the southwest part of the state, the San Miguel River at Placerville peaked at 823 cfs; and the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs hit its high mark of 2,915 cfs.

    The San Miguel River flows from its headwaters near Telluride through Placerville on its way to its confluence with the Dolores River. Rivers around the state peaked early this year, partly due to dust on snow, which accelerates melting.
    Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    On May 20, the Roaring Fork River just above its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs peaked at 4,450 cfs; the Eagle River at Dotsero peaked at about 4,950 cfs.

    On May 21, just upstream of major agriculture diversions to the Grand Valley at a location known as Cameo, the Colorado River peaked at about 10,730 cfs. At the Utah state line, streamflows peaked at 16,130 cfs.

    The peak streamflow volumes for these locations were within the range of what’s considered normal.

    Although there may be a second, smaller peak in coming days as summer temperatures return, forecasters say most of the snow below 11,000 feet has already melted out, meaning not enough is left to fuel a bigger peak than the one that has already happened.

    For several locations — the Roaring Fork at Glenwood, the Crystal, the San Miguel and the Colorado at Cameo — the peak came so early that it was outside the window of what’s considered normal. The rest of the locations — the Yampa, the Eagle and the Colorado at the Utah state line — were inside the normal range, although on the earlier side.

    These conditions can be partly attributed to dust on snow, which causes the snowpack to melt earlier and faster.

    “Dust on snow has played a pretty big role this year,” said Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist with the CBRFC. “It really allows the energy from the sun to get absorbed into the snowpack much more than if you have this white, clean snow surface.”

    The Roaring Fork River seen here on May 24 near the Catherine Store Bridge in Carbondale. Downstream at Glenwood Springs, the river peaked for the season on May 20, early and outside the window of what’s considered normal.
    Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    According to Jeff Derry, executive director of the Silverton-based Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, a total of 11 dust events occurred in April and May. A total of six or seven occur during a normal year.

    This spring has been unusually windy, which has kicked up dust from northern New Mexico and Arizona and deposited it on Colorado’s snow-capped peaks; the San Juan Mountains, in the southwestern part of the state, were the hardest hit. Each year, the center ranks the severity of the dust storms.

    “A number of those were really nasty events,” Derry said. “This is the first time since 2013 that we have said it’s a severe dust year.”

    Early runoff brings challenges

    The early runoff is a challenge for Blazing Adventures, a rafting company based in Aspen and Snowmass that runs trips on the Roaring Fork River. According to owner Vince Nichols, they usually try to run the Roaring Fork through the Fourth of July before heading to other sections of the Arkansas and Colorado rivers that see higher flows later in the summer. This year, it will be closer to mid-June, he said.

    “It’s certainly been a strange runoff this year,” Nichols said. “We came out of the ski season with some optimism, but when we mixed in those high winds and dust, it ran off a lot faster than we were anticipating.”

    The early runoff could also have implications for reservoir managers, who may have to begin releasing water earlier in the summer to meet downstream calls. A call happens when a senior water right is not receiving its full amount of water and junior upstream water users must cut back in order to send water to the senior user downstream.

    The graph shows an updated hydrograph for the Colorado River near the Utah state line.
    Courtesy NOAA/Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

    This may end up being the situation with Green Mountain Reservoir, which is on the Blue River, is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call from the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon. The call comes on most years in midsummer, but this year, it may be earlier.

    “I may have to start making storage releases earlier,” said Victor Lee, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation. “That’s pretty typical of dry years, but with this early runoff, the call might come much earlier than what I expected.”

    The same may happen at Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Ruedi is also operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and is affected by the call at Cameo, which comes on most summers.

    Although Ruedi had been forecast to fill by the skin of its teeth this year, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Tim Miller said he now thinks it will end up 1,000 to 6,000 acre-feet short. He said he will continue releasing the minimum required flow of 110 cfs until downstream calls come on and he has to release more stored water.

    “I always like to point out that our snowpack is a natural reservoir and if that reservoir releases its water earlier than what’s normal, you can kind of imagine the disruptions and problems that occur,” Derry said. “It makes reservoir management a little bit more complicated if you have the water coming down earlier than what you expected.”

    State agency affirms Holy Cross Energy’s ambitious clean energy plan

    Holy Cross Energy is committed to getting 100% of its electricity from clean or renewable sources by the year 2030.
    Courtesy photo

    Holy Cross Energy received state verification for its ambitious clean energy plan this month, which confirmed that the company’s strategy to reach a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is both accurate and attainable.

    Holy Cross Energy created its latest clean energy plan in 2020, when the company’s board decided to expand upon its 2017 goal of 70% carbon reduction by 2030 and go for a full transition to renewable energy sources over the course of a decade.

    President and CEO Bryan Hannegan said that the plan they submitted for state approval is currently the most ambitious in Colorado, and is at the forefront of utility companies transitioning to renewables in the country.

    “It’s only one of six such plans of its type anywhere in the United States,” Hannegan said. “By that, I mean the level of ambition, 100%, and also how quickly, 2030. That’s eight years from now. That’s yesterday in electric utility planning terms, and so it means that we have to move at a pace and a scale that’s going to make a difference and hopefully inspire others to act in accordance.”

    Holy Cross Energy voluntarily submitted the plan to the state’s Air Pollution Control Division in December and received the news this month that the emissions reduction calculations in the plan are verified and the result is a 99% emissions reduction by 2030.

    Hannegan said being a leader in the renewable energy space means that the plans Holy Cross officials are coming up with are made up of original ideas and approaches, many that are the first of their kind. To have a legitimate third party sign off on the feasibility of the plan is an important marker that they are moving in the right direction.

    “That renewable energy goal that we developed was something that we didn’t see an analog for. It was something that we really needed to pioneer,” Hannegan said. “We relentlessly take great ideas and try to bring them home, creating a culture of innovation and trying to push the boundaries, because we know we’re going to need to be the first ones to get there to meet our goals.”

    The push for moving entirely to renewables is not motivated by just the rising impacts of climate change. It also presents a financial benefit to both the company and its customers.

    Hannegan said that the conventional wisdom that renewables are more expensive than fossil fuel resources is no longer true, thanks to technological improvements that have increased the efficiency of renewables while lowering cost levels. Utility companies no longer have to choose between economics and sustainability, because the two now go hand in hand.

    As the primary energy provider in Eagle County, Holy Cross Energy feels a responsibility to be a leader in the county’s goal to reduce overall emissions by 50% by 2030.
    Vail Daily archive

    “​​You look at the gasoline pump and the price of crude oil at over $100, and then you compare that volatility in those prices to what we get when we contract with a wind farm for 15 years at a fixed price that doesn’t fluctuate based on world events or supply chain issues or inflationary expenses,” Hannegan said. “So not only are we saving money — and we’ve saved over $15 million in the last several years — we’re also providing more stable power supply costs, which makes up roughly about half of what all of our members pay on their monthly electricity bill.”

    As the primary energy provider in Eagle County, Holy Cross Energy also feels the responsibility to be a leader in the county’s goal to reduce overall emissions by 50% by 2030. Electrical consumption currently accounts for about a third of total emissions, and Hannegan said that leading with renewable electricity will provide a sustainable alternative for other sources of greenhouse gas.

    “The easiest way for us to do that as a society is to have clean electricity, and then use that clean electricity as the fuel to replace the oil, the natural gas, propane, all the other stuff that emits carbon,” Hannegan said. “So we’ve got to get our job done early so that everybody else’s job becomes a whole lot easier.”

    Hannegan hopes that the clean energy plan that Holy Cross Energy is undertaking will serve as a template for other utility companies, and will provide a working example of how ambitious renewable energy goals can be both achievable and profitable. He said that the decision to shift originally came from listening to consumers’ demand for renewables, and that utility companies around the country should be listening and responding to the values of their own customers.

    “I believe — and you see this from the evidence of utility commitments like these all around the country — that there’s no reason electric utilities can’t pivot to provide the clean energy that their consumers want,” Hannegan said. “I think the biggest thing that’s driving us forward is that our communities are speaking with one really loud voice and saying this is what we want, and to the extent that other communities want that they should raise their voices as well and work with their local providers to make sure that it happens.”

    To learn more about Holy Cross Energy’s clean energy plan and initiatives, visit HolyCross.com/renewable-energy.

    CMC to host community forum on history of Colorado’s Indigenous nations

    Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Tribe member and a director at the Keystone Policy Center, will be featured at a virtual event presented by Colorado Mountain College.
    Keystone Policy Center/Courtesy Photo

    Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to honor the achievements of King and his nonviolent resistance to racial inequality. To commemorate the day, Colorado Mountain College will host a community conversation to enhance understandings of Indigenous tribal histories predating the formation of the college.

    The virtual event, “Beyond Acknowledgements: Understanding CMC’s land heritage and seeding the future,” is free and open to the public.

    The keynote speaker will be Ernest House Jr., senior policy director of the Keystone Policy Center and former executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. House will be joined during the key presentation and discussion by facilitator Patrick Staib, Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs social science professor. Additional presenters from the college, including President Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser, will participate as well.

    House is a confirmed member of the Ute Mountain Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado, and the son of the late Ernest House Sr., a longtime tribal leader of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the great-grandson of the last hereditary chief of the tribe, Chief Jack House. Throughout his career, House has worked to maintain government-to-government relationships among the state of Colorado and tribal governments and organizations. Currently, at the Keystone Policy Center, House is working with various stakeholders in the areas of tribal consultation, energy, health care and education.

    This virtual presentation will be held Monday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. In addition to a live Zoom presentation, the event will be recorded.

    Contact Heather Weems at hweems@coloradomtn.edu, 970-947-8365 for questions regarding accessing Zoom.

    If you go …

    What: Beyond Acknowledgements: Understanding CMC’s land heritage and seeding the future; an event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

    When: Monday, Jan. 17, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

    Where: Join the Zoom (recording available) at ColoMtn.me/MLK2022

    Before you go: View pre-event video and readings; additional Resources at ColoradoMtn.edu

    Stronger together: How Eagle County’s health care workers rose to the challenge of COVID-19

    Vail Health nurse Nicole Campbell administers a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Jordon Nicholson of Conifer Wednesday at the Vail Hospital.
    Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

    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.”

    Caitlyn Gnam said she was always able to leave her work at the hospital. That changed with the arrival of COVID-19.
    Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

    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.

    Uncharted waters

    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.

    Vials of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine wait to be filled into syringes Wednesday in Vail.
    Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

    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.

    Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department. He said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
    Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

    “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.”

    Residents give thumbs up while waiting in line at a vaccine clinic at Vail Health. The county is rapidly approaching 30,000 total dose of vaccine being distributed.
    Special to the Daily

    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.”