COVID-19 Cases Spike in Mesa County As Restrictions Lift But Vaccinations Lag Behind State

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A view down Fruita Canyon at Colorado National Monument, looking east to the Book Cliffs on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020

Mesa County is one of the four worst counties in the state for the number of COVID-19 cases. They’ve had 300 cases in the last week with a more than 5 percent positivity rate and more than 93 percent of hospital and staffed ICU beds full. 

“The one thing that we've got working against us in Mesa County is that only about 38 percent of our age-eligible individuals are fully vaccinated,” said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health. “I want that number to be way up there. That is the solution, especially with the CDC loosening up on mask rules.” 

That means 62 percent of the people in Mesa County have not been vaccinated and aren’t wearing masks, Kuhr said. 

“It's political, it always has been political. I wish that was not the case. And I wish people would do more to do something on behalf of their community,” Kuhr said. "I've been working hard at this for 15 months now. My team is exhausted, and we just keep hammering away at it. We're going to continue to do that on behalf of our residents.”

Statewide, about 50 percent of the population has received one dose and around 35 percent are fully vaccinated. As of May 18, Colorado ranked as the worst state in the nation for COVID-19 cases, according to The New York Times’ state-by-state tracking system.

Along with Mesa County, Conejos, Alamosa and El Paso counties are the worst in the state. In the New York Times data, Conjeos ranks third worst in the country and Alamosa ranks 9th. The counties that are faring the best include Kiowa, Custer, Pitkin and Ouray, while Denver, Boulder, Pueblo and Larimer counties fall in the middle.       

Mesa County has seven school outbreaks. The worst outbreak, with 29 cases, is at Shelledy Elementary. Plus, the county has seen an increase to 20 cases, almost three times more than last week, of the COVID-19 variant from India. It’s the only county in the state to have detected that variant. Most of the people with this variant are in some way associated with the school district, which may be part of the driving factor behind school outbreaks.

Kuhr said that was expected. 

“You don't see something rare like this just popping up randomly. There had to be a source,” he said. “Of those 20 that we know about, all but two were not vaccinated, and the two that were only had one of the two vaccinations.”

In the last six deaths from COVID-19 in the county, none of the people were vaccinated. 

With the weather warming up, those who have mild cases of the virus may not realize they’re sick and could be spreading the virus. COVID-19 testing has gone down in the county, and that adds challenges to understanding community spread and then doing contact tracing. 

Vaccine hesitancy remains one of the top reasons people aren’t getting the vaccine, but the county is working to help spread accurate information about the vaccines. Kuhr said he knows there is some bad information circulating.

“I have a team that goes out and does presentations for various employers in our communities just to try to dispel some of the myths. There are people within our own agency that have not been vaccinated,” Kuhr said. “I understand that there are various reasons why people are hesitating, and I do want them to do their research.”

The department has commercials, information on its website and now it’s starting an incentive program for people who get vaccinated. Each day, the department will do a $100 drawing for people who got vaccinated that day, and each week one vaccinated person will win a $1,000 prize. 

While the metrics in the county don’t look good, it could get worse. The county’s hospital beds are filled with 22 COVID-19 patients, while the rest are for trauma patients and other non-COVID-19 issues.  

“It is concerning,” Kuhr said. “But that's why really the solution is to get vaccinated.”