And then there were 4: Colorado’s last coronavirus-free counties want to stay that way

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EADS — Distances are big and wide in Kiowa County, while amenities are few and far between.

The remoteness and stillness of this wedge of high plains Colorado, flush up against the Kansas border, has undoubtedly played a major role in making it one of the last few counties in the state without a single documented case of COVID-19, the respiratory disease associated with the novel coronavirus.

“We’re socially distanced 365 days a year,” said Keith Crow, owner of Crow’s Stop & Shop, the lone grocery store in Eads.

Kiowa County, a three-hour drive southeast of Denver, shares its COVID-free designation with Jackson, Dolores and Sedgwick counties — all sparsely populated and far away from any communities of size. None of the four counties has more than 2,500 residents; Kiowa County itself numbers fewer than 1,400.

But Charlene Korrell, CEO of Weisbrod Memorial County Hospital in Eads, said she and her staff are taking no chances with coronavirus, which has infected more than 22,000 people in Colorado and killed approximately 1,200 since it was first detected in the state on March 5. The virus’ presence has been reported in Colorado’s other 60 counties.

“My concern is it’s probably here and we haven’t identified the people who have it yet,” Korrell said. “We’re still locked down.”

No visitors are permitted in the waiting area inside Weisbrod Hospital, and to even get into the vestibule at the front entrance of the small facility, a nurse gets a body temperature from the forehead with a handheld thermometer. Masks are required.

There are signs elsewhere in Eads, population 600, of the global pandemic that has locked down large parts of the world. JJ’s Restaurant on East 15th Street has curtailed its hours and does only takeout and curbside service, and several shoppers at Crow’s Stop & Shop last week wore masks as they perused the store’s selections. But there are no social distancing demarcations on the floor and no Plexiglass at the checkout counter.

Keith Crow, owner of the Eads grocery store Crows Stop and Shop, stocks meat on May 14, 2020. Crow has seen meat prices go up during the coronavirus pandemic.

Crow said he leaves the decision on protection up to the customer, many of whom he called out by name as they wove their way down the narrow aisles of his store.

“You have to choose whether you stay at home or come out wearing a spacesuit,” he said.

Even so, the grocery has set aside the first half hour of each day for older shoppers and those who are immuno-compromised, and an extra hour Wednesday evenings just for health care workers. Crow has been delivering groceries to residents who aren’t comfortable being in public.

Eads Mayor Joe Shields said there are some in town who “pooh-pooh” the pandemic as a big city problem that will never find its way to this out-of-the-way stretch of the Centennial State. But he points to the truck stop at the north end of town as a natural entry point for the virus, as truckers and travelers moving up and down U.S. 287 make a pit stop or grab a sandwich at the Subway inside.

Neighboring counties all have coronavirus cases, with 11 in Otero, nine in Prowers and 39 in Crowley. Shields said his town had a close call recently when several workers on a crew helping construct a new school in Kit Carson 20 miles away in neighboring Cheyenne County came down with COVID-19.

Two men from that crew stayed at a motel in Eads but both tested negative, the mayor said.

“Our remoteness is instrumental in the fact that we haven’t been infected,” Shields said, wearing a mask during an in-person interview last week. “But we have to take measures.”

At town hall, that means controlled access to the building and a mandatory mask over the face. Hands-free dispensers offer virus-killing sanitizer for visitors.

Korrell, with the hospital, said while precautions are good, the coronavirus has proven itself to be a disturbingly contagious pathogen. The fact that it doesn’t produce symptoms in many of the people it infects allows its transmission and spread to go undetected, she said.

And in Kiowa County, testing has been limited — only 50 COVID-19 tests have been administered, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — meaning the virus may already be lurking in the population.

“I do believe it’s a matter of time,” Korrell said. “I do think there’s this false sense of security living out here.”

Swings are tied up high on a playground in Eads so children can’t reach them during the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020.

Sedgwick, Dolores also at zero

Two hundred miles north, in the far corner of the state, Sedgwick County knows the virus could strike at any moment. Julesburg, the county seat, sits near the nexus of Interstate 76 and Interstate 80, with plenty of traffic moving through town every day on the way in and out of neighboring Nebraska.

Just to the west of Sedgwick County, in Logan and Morgan counties, COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported at the Sterling Correctional Facility and at various food processing plants. Across the two counties, there are more than 1,000 cases of the disease.

Newly elected Town Trustee Micaiah Lanckriet said Sedgwick County has been “blessed” to escape the wrath of coronavirus so far. But she also credited her constituents for exhibiting responsible behavior when it comes to reducing its spread.

“Our citizens have been very respectful of the restrictions,” she said. “We have maintained the social distancing and we have maintained what we’re supposed to do.”

At the Family Market, Julesburg’s lone grocery store, owner Jaci Van Zee said her customers have been good about wearing masks, with around 70% compliance despite some grumbling. Her attempt at humor in the form of a sign reading “No shirt, no shoes, no mask — no service” didn’t go over well.

“We had to turn people away without masks, and that isn’t good for business,” Van Zee said.

Now the store hands out paper towel masks, equipped with rubber bands, to customers who don’t bring their own. Van Zee said they give out around 50 of the makeshift face coverings a day.

Family Market also has arranged with local volunteer fire departments to make grocery deliveries to vulnerable customers throughout the county, Van Zee said.

“We’re proud that we haven’t gotten any cases — that we have done our part,” she said.

Lanckriet said she would like to see coronavirus restrictions eased in the county as soon as possible, and in fact Sedgwick County has received one of only five waivers granted by the state so far.

The waiver will allow the county to open the few restaurants and bars it has to dine-in service, though the total number of customers allowed inside will be limited to 10. People ordering from the bar will need to take their cocktail or beer to a table.

As in Kiowa County, though, testing has been far from robust in Sedgwick County. Only 45 COVID-19 tests have been administered there since the pandemic flared in March.

“Restrictions should be completely based on data and not on emotion,” Lanckriet said. “And if we don’t have the data showing we need the restrictions, then we could lessen them.”

On the other side of the state, officials in Dolores County are also seeking a waiver, though they haven’t received it so far.

“We are so remote — we don’t have to worry about social isolation because it’s already here,” said Julie Kibel, a Dolores County commissioner.

She said the mountainous county of 2,000 people that borders Utah has five restaurants split between the towns of Dove Creek and Rico, and she would like to see them return closer to normal operations.

With the courthouse and school in Dove Creek closed, Kibel said, there are really no public places where people can gather. But she worries about those who have second homes in the county heading back to the high country as the weather warms.

“Are we safe for now, and in June and July we’ll see a peak?” she asked.

A cross and American flag are up outside a home in Eads on May 14, 2020.

“I know where I’m going”

Back in Kiowa County, Korrell remains on high alert at Weisbrod Hospital. The hospital has one ventilator and 16 long-term patients who, because of their ages and health situations, are particularly vulnerable to the deadly virus.

That’s why anyone seeking a test for COVID-19 is either swabbed inside their car or in a tiny foyer near the hospital’s service elevator.

Korrell started staffing up as soon as she heard that Eagle County reported its first coronavirus case in early March, and she is on the lookout for it to infiltrate Kiowa County as restrictions are lifted statewide.

Mary Lou Williams, 91, also continues to be careful, wearing her mask at the Stop & Shop last week while picking up a bag of groceries. She commended her fellow residents for the protective measures they had taken to stave off the virus. But she was matter-of-fact about her own potential vulnerability to a virus that has done its greatest damage to older people.

“If it happens, I guess the Lord is ready for me,” Williams said. “Because I know where I’m going.”

A road in Kiowa County is pictured on May 14, 2020.