Breckenridge Ski Resort (Photo) Credit skibreck (iStock)

The moon sets behind the Imperial Express chairlift at Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 8. It remains North America’s highest operating lift at 12,840 feet above sea level.

Languishing. That's how Jennifer McAtamney describes how Summit County is weathering the omicron surge, which hit Summit and its resort neighbors harder and earlier than anywhere else in the state.

Exhausted — that applies, too. Overwhelmed. The surge came just as Summit was preparing to welcome tens of thousands of visitors to the area for its busiest time, and the variant's unprecedented rate of spread sent droves of hospitality workers into quarantine, costing them the most precious days of the year.

But languishing, McAtamney said, fit bets.

"I think it really hits home in terms of, people are just — they're getting through, but barely," said McAtamney, the executive director of Building Hope, a mental health-focused community group in Summit County. "They call it the middle child of mental health. It's somewhere between depression and flourishing. But none of us is flourishing. And most of us are really struggling."

A week or so before Christmas, the omicron variant found Summit County and its neighbors, Eagle and Pitkin. It was not Summit's first time on the front end of the pandemic in Colorado: The state's first COVID-19 case was identified there, in early March 2020. 

Now, as then, the newest twist in the pandemic came at one of Summit County's busiest moments. By Christmas Day, the county's seven-day positivity rate had surpassed 25%. Summit, Eagle and Pitkin would wrap up 2021 ranked by The New York Times as having three of the four highest case rates in the country. 

"That was a bitter pill to swallow," said Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence. "But I think it was also reflective and insightful, almost like a crystal ball, of what the rest of the state was going to start seeing."

Summit, Eagle and Pitkin are ahead of the rest of the state in terms of omicron's spread. But not by much, not anymore: The state's positivity rate has topped 26%, and hospitalizations have sharply climbed again, after a month of welcome declines. Because of recent data lags, it's unclear just how many cases Colorado is reporting of late, but they're significantly higher than any previous point in the pandemic. The state set several successive daily records at the end of December. 

The first omicron case was identified in Colorado in Arapahoe County on Dec. 2. A short time later, positive tests from Summit County were sent to the state lab for sequencing, to determine if they were omicron cases. But those samples, sent between Dec. 8 and Dec. 15, were not processed — and omicron not officially confirmed in the county — until Jan. 3, nearly a month later. 

At that point, the results were immaterial, officials in the county said. The proof of omicron's arrival was all around them, and county leaders enacted a mask mandate on Dec. 30. Lawrence said rapid tests were impossible to find in the county; she drove to Denver and checked eight different Walgreens to find some. Wait times for community testing sites in the county were as long as three and a half hours.

"We really knew when we started seeing large swaths of the workforce taken out," said Sarah Vaine, an assistant county manager in Summit County. "Twenty staff in one place that all got sick. ... Whereas before there might be two or three cases in one setting, it would 12 to 15 people in a matter of a couple of days." 

Vaine said she was exposed through a family member and waited nearly four hours with her kids to get tested. When they finally got to the front of the line, she said, they found one woman running the site — 300 tests — by herself. The state sent them additional testing resources, and the county then requested help managing testing site traffic because so many law enforcement personnel were out sick.

"That would be when we were like, 'This is feeling like it's hitting our community hard,'" she said.

That omicron hit Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties first wasn't a surprise — to those in Summit County, to Gov. Jared Polis or to his public health leaders. The counties welcome waves of tourists from across the country and world every December. 

"Our community has worked so hard to be healthy and to create a safe environment so we can thrive economically and people can visit our beautiful city," McAtamney said. "But when they come here, they bring COVID. And so the very thing that makes our economic life is threatened by this disease, and it’s really super hard to balance the health of the community with the economic viability."

Adding to the frustration is that Summit County has a high vaccination rate: At 82.7% of eligible residents fully vaccinated, it's one of the highest rates in the state. But the constant arrival and churning of tourists, vaccination status unknown, makes it hard to predict how long this surge will last. Because of how quickly omicron has surged, the conventional wisdom among public health officials is that the wave will subside relatively quickly. 

"I don't know that'll always be the case for our resort areas," Lawrence said. "We're going to continue to have visitors from all over. As it spreads other places and those folks come here — what does that mean? I do worry about sustainability of our workforce through this season, if we can get through it."

Dick Carleton, a member of the Breckenridge Town Council and the owner of two restaurants there, said his staffs were down more than 50% on some days, forcing him to close off sections; he estimated he's likely down between 10% and 15% compared to 2019. Vaine said grocery store lines at self-checkout stations have extended back into the aisles because so few staff are available to ring up customers. A "little wave" is going through the county's dispatch center, she said, prompting officials to reach out to other counties for help.

Businesses lost staff and staff lost hours during the weeks they needed them most, officials said. The holiday period often helps residents shore up their finances for well beyond the two-week period itself.  

"That could be a make or break from a business owner perspective and from a worker standpoint," McAtamney said. "If you're working in tourism, that means you’re getting more hours, better tips, more tips, designation visitors — the ripple effect is just ginormous."

At St. Anthony Summit Hospital, between 20% and 25% of workers were positive for COVID-19 by late December, said Becky Blackwell, chief medical officer and medical director. The hospital "had to make the hard decision to close 10 of our 26 medical beds during Christmas weekend because we couldn't staff them."

The good news, every official interviewed for this article said, is that infections are generally more mild than previous COVID-19 waves. Vaine said for many, it's like a bad cold. While clinics and emergency rooms are seeing more COVID-19 patients, hospitalizations in Summit County "have not skyrocketed," Blackwell added. 

"A lot of patients with what we've been hearing — more mild symptoms," she said. "Not that they feel good, but they are not requiring hospitalizations at this point." 

Omicron has proven to be capable of evading immunity, particularly for people who have only received their initial two-dose inoculation (or one dose, in Johnson & Johnson's case). But boosters remain effective, officials have said, and cases are mild in particular among the vaccinated. 

For now, it doesn't appear the surge is slowing in Summit County, officials said. Health experts statewide have said the surge is likely to pass relatively quickly. Blackwell said she was hoping the county would be on the downward slide by the end of January. 

For now, McAtamney said she expected more residents to be in mental health crises. She ticked off the reasons: more isolation, especially during the holiday season; likely lost wages; fewer hours of daylight. She's hopeful that things will improve, especially if Summit County's surge ends soon, and that 2022 will turn around.

"Happy New Year," she said, "it can't get any worse than this!"

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