Moffat County COVID-19 cases climbing faster than any county in the country
Moffat County is currently sitting atop a dubious list.
Out of 3,143 U.S. counties, no county in America is gaining COVID-19 cases faster over the last two weeks than Moffat County, according to data compiled by the New York Times.
Between the start of September and Wednesday, Moffat County is up 760% in COVID-19 cases. The next highest gainer is Jackson County, Texas, which is up 566%. Most of the 10 worst counties in this statistic are gaining a percentage in the 300s.
And it’s not going unnoticed by healthcare providers in Craig.
“We are overwhelmed,” said Memorial Regional Hospital medical director Dr. Matthew Grzegozewski by phone Wednesday morning. “It’s not just the emergency department, but at rapid care, too. Our typical volume is maybe 30 to 40 patients a day. Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, we saw 98. Our staff is exhausted, and it’s difficult to have a constant stream of people that are coming in with the same complaint. As a hospital I feel we’re doing our best to get the message out, that this is preventable, we have steps we can take, and it feels like we’re screaming into the wind.”
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Grzegozewski said even seeing as many patients as he’s seen — he said it’s 80% to 90% COVID-19 patients — he was still stunned to see that this is the fastest-gaining county in the nation since the beginning of September.
He said there’s an obvious association to draw with the timeline.
“There’s no coincidence that it correlates with decisions like opening schools and avoiding all mask mandates in the schools,” he said. “It’s just the wrong decision to make.”
Complicating the overflowing ICU and COVID units is the lack of outlets for critically sick patients, both from COVID-19 and not.
“Our COVID unit is full, and so we’ll have a couple days where in order to put patients in the unit, we have to hold them in the emergency department,” Grzegozewski said. “That causes frustrations for patients, delays care, and then we’re backed up having to take patients into our own hospital. And then, sick patients that need to get transferred out, there’s no beds available across the state — even (for) non-COVID patients. It’s affecting every facet of our healthcare at this point.”
The mortality rate is sticking close to 2%, as it has the majority of the pandemic, Grzegozewski said, even as improved treatment techniques and medications have come to the fore as the pandemic has worn on. The primary intervention for a critically ill COVID-19 patient is respiratory assistance through a ventilator, and that’s a limited resource.
“There’s 14,000 people in Moffat County, and 1,500 have contracted the virus,” Grzegozewski said. “So roughly 10% of the county has gotten sick, and 30 people have died. That’s 2%. My message to people is why would you ever do anything to risk a 2% chance of death? If you contract this virus, sure you might be OK, but 2% chance no matter who you are that you could die. It’s devastating to watch this. As a community at large, we’ve just chosen to accept this illness — not just the illness, but missing work, missing income, children being sick out from school. Deaths of friends and family, we’ve accepted this rather than just taking the vaccine, which is safe and effective.”
Grzegozewski echoed the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends residents of counties that are in the state in which Moffat County finds itself to mask up even for vaccinated individuals.
“We need to fight this,” he said. “Wear a mask, it’s simple. A simple mask, it may be uncomfortable, but it’s very easy, and that simple task — don’t have to do it walking the dog or mowing the lawn, but in the grocery store or a school bus, just wear a mask for the 5 minutes you’re in there. It has a dramatic impact.”
Children’s vulnerability to the Delta variant in particular — the last report from MRH showed that the majority of positive COVID-19 tests in recent weeks are in individuals under 19 years old — makes the state of Moffat County schools all the more concerning for the doctor.
“The decision by the school board to not have children wear masks in confined spaces — the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has repeatedly asked our school board to mask students, even asked them to engage in distance learning for a few weeks because of the case numbers. Rather than even consider that, they went the opposite direction and did away with quarantine restrictions.
“You don’t get to be the last-place county in the entire country without leadership and direction that sends you that way.”
Moffat County School District board president JoAnn Baxter told the Craig Press last week, when the announcement was made that broader quarantine practices would be essentially suspended by the district, that the concern was making sure healthy children were in school. The district has asked that parents monitor their children for symptoms and keep them home if sick, even though asymptomatic spread is a significant factor in the contagion of the virus.
Baxter said then that she wasn’t concerned that that was a dangerous step, but she did have another area of concern.
“I have a concern about the rate of vaccination in this county and whether or not people are being appropriately masked,” Baxter said last week. “We are highly recommending people who have not been vaccinated to wear masks.”
Two schools, Craig Middle School and Sandrock Elementary School, have required adults in the buildings to mask up as positivity rates have climbed in those locations, but the policy for children remains an unenforced recommendation.
The latest data shows Moffat County inching toward 50% of residents having received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is available for free regardless of insurance at MRH and many other locations. Wednesday, the county sat at 47.1% of eligible residents with at least the first shot.
Still, though hardly the biggest issue at hand, the state of the response has been a morale hit for healthcare workers locally, Grzegozewski said.
“Myself and the entire healthcare staff, I guess we feel we’re being tuned out,” he said. “People don’t want to hear it. They’re over it. They don’t want to talk about it — just want to ignore it. But it’s not going away, and it won’t until we do something different.”
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In a letter to the community, Jennifer Riley, chief operating officer at Memorial Regional Health, outlined the new COVID-19 vaccine requirement policy as mandated by state and federal officials.