by Mark Craddock
WALSENBURG — For longtime members of the Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center staff, a call of “code love” has a specific and profound meaning.
It means a resident of the Veterans’ Community Living Center has died.
Their casket is wheeled through the facility so fellow residents can say their last goodbyes. Staff members, many of whom have formed close bonds with residents over the years, flock from their respective work areas to do the same.
It is a somber, often tearful, communal sendoff done out of respect and love for the residents in their charge. And it was one of the first traditions that had to be shelved in the name of safety; one of many efforts to keep the COVID-19 pandemic out of the facility, to keep the vulnerable veterans’ home residents safe.
This weekend, three residents died of COVID-19-related causes. A fourth resident died Tuesday night.
They departed the facility quietly without the communal “code love,” but the impact of the loss was keenly felt throughout the halls of the hospital.
“We are devastated by the loss of residents to COVID-19,” hospital and veterans’ home CEO Kay Whitley said. “We haven’t just lost residents; we’ve lost dear friends and true heroes. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who passed.”
As of noon Wednesday, 22 residents had tested positive for the virus, according to interim PIO Trapper Collova. Twenty-two staff members have tested positive and are isolating at home.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment declared the SPRHC an outbreak Nov. 19, with five of the facility’s 76 residents testing positive, as well as four members of staff. As of Nov. 25, CDPHE reported six confirmed positive cases among residents, with four more probable positives and four positives among staff members.
Before the outbreak, three hospital rooms were fitted as isolation units, in order to accommodate residents and local patients with COVID-19, as well as recuperating spillover patients from larger Pueblo and Colorado Springs hospitals that routinely accept SPRHC’s critical patients.
In the wake of the outbreak and subsequent deaths, all veterans’ home residents have been isolated to their rooms, Collova said. All areas of the facility are cleaned twice daily and all staff members are required to wear personal protective equipment as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CDPHE guidelines.
Since COVID-19 tests became more readily available in late April, the facility’s residents and staff have been tested at least once each week. That has been increased to twice per week in the wake of the outbreak.
“We are doing everything possible to reduce COVID-19 transmission and treat those who are infected while still providing a safe environment for other patient care needs,” Dr. Mike Moll, SPRHC chief medical officer, said.
“We prepared extensively for a potential rise in COVID-19 cases, working hand-in-hand with local, state and national healthcare authorities,” Whitley said. “We are taking extraordinary steps to contain the outbreak and care for those infected.”
County cases rise precipitously
Las Animas County has seen 52 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths since Nov. 25. As of Wednesday, the county had a total case count of 309, with 99 active cases. Also as of Wednesday, Huerfano County saw 59 new COVID-19 cases and the four veterans’ home deaths. Its total case count as of Wednesday stood at 191 with 88 active cases. It was just over two weeks ago, on Nov. 19, that the county hit 100 cases. Las Animas County passed the 100-case mark on Oct. 30.
Data from the Las Animas Huerfano Counties District Health Department shows that the two counties experienced only modest numbers of cases early in the pandemic but have seen exponential growth in cases in the last month.
Las Animas County saw between three and eight cases per month from April through September. That number jumped to 86 in October and 195 in November.
Between March and June, Huerfano County saw one confirmed case per month. In July, there were two cases and in August, three cases. There were 16 new cases in September, 13 cases in October and 153 new cases in November.
Huerfano to Move to Red, Las Animas to Orange
Because of the rising case numbers, the CDPHE will move Huerfano County to red on the COVID-19 dial as of Friday, Dec. 4 at 5 p.m.
A Dec. 2 letter to the county from CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said Huerfano’s two-week cumulative incidence rate stands at 1,371.46 per 100,000; its positivity rate is 14% and its two-week COVID-19 case count (new cases) stands at 100.
“Given the sustained incidence rate, case count and percent testing positivity, an implementation of additional restrictions is warranted to more quickly suppress transmission,” she wrote. “As such, CDPHE is moving Huerfano County to COVID-19 Dial Level Red.”
Under level red restrictions, indoor dining is closed in restaurants, and bars remain closed. Places of worship are restricted to 25% of capacity or 50 persons indoors.
Critical and non-critical retail may operate at 50% capacity with increased curbside pick-up. Offices are restricted to 10% capacity and remote work is strongly encouraged. Personal services may operate at 25% capacity or 25 people.
Indoor events and entertainment are closed, and citizens are “strongly advised” to stay at home.
Schools may operate either in-person or remotely.
On Friday, Nov. 27, Las Animas County moved from yellow to orange. The CDPHE informed county officials that its current incidence rates are aligned with Level Red on the COVID-19 dial, but “decided to implement gradual restrictions at this time.”
The CDPHE said it “reserves the right to move the county to a more restrictive level at any point should circumstances warrant more aggressive sector restrictions.”
As of Tuesday, Dec. 1, Huerfano County’s two-week cumulative incidence rate (the number of cases per 100,000 people) stood at 1,123 and its average positivity was 6.6 percent. And, in the wake of COVID-19 hospitalization due to the veterans’ home outbreak, the county’s hospitalization numbers moved into the yellow range, too.
Las Animas County on Tuesday logged a two-week cumulative incidence rate of 572.7, with an average positivity of 3.3 percent and hospitalizations also in the yellow zone.