Rural Colfax County can't escape the COVID-19 surge - Albuquerque Journal

Rural Colfax County can’t escape the COVID-19 surge

The main strip in downtown Raton, N.M., in 2007. (Source: Wikimedia)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been on the rise in nearly every part of New Mexico in recent weeks, including rural areas that saw few cases during the pandemic’s initial waves.

That includes Colfax County, near the northeast corner of the state, where cases have skyrocketed by 600% in the course of a month to a total of more than 350. The county initially averaged only a handful of cases for most of the pandemic, but cases have ballooned as the nation endures its worst stretch of COVID-19 infections so far.

Part of that increase comes from cases that have popped up in Springer Correctional Center and in nursing homes in the county seat of Raton, but those account for only a portion of the county’s total caseload.

Local officials say the county’s location has played a major factor in the increase.

Colfax County borders Colorado and isn’t far from state borders with Oklahoma and Texas. All of these states have struggled to contain the virus and Colfax County residents often travel there for one reason or another.

Raton sits right on the Colorado border, and it’s not uncommon for residents to travel to and from neighboring Trinidad, Colorado, for work or to shop.

“We have no large retail grocery stores,” said Tom Vigil, the county’s emergency manager. “A lot of people do their shopping in Trinidad, where the nearest Walmart is.”

Vigil said residents often travel to, or have family traveling in from, cities in the Texas Panhandle, such as Amarillo or Lubbock, which are seeing some the country’s largest outbreaks of COVID-19.

Through what contact tracing they’ve been able to complete, officials say those initial outside cases appear to have triggered a massive community spread in a 3,768-square-mile county of around 13,000 residents.

Making matters worse is “COVID fatigue,” when people begin to tire of various restrictions forced on the economy and people’s ability to gather. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s restrictions in particular have come under scrutiny by some, while others have lauded her aggressive approach to the virus.

But County Manager Mary Lou Kern said residents in her county are simply tired and taking greater risks as a result.

“They kind of got through the summer when the numbers were staying kind of low,” she said. “When things opened up, they got complacent and careless – now they’re having a hard time reeling back.”

Lujan Grisham recently increased restrictions in the wake of record case numbers, including a two-week stay-at-home order. Now, the state is on a county-by-county reopening system, but Colfax remains far from meeting the criteria to reopen the area’s economy.

Colfax County’s economy used to rely on the mining and ranching industry, dubbing itself “the Pittsburgh of the West.” However, most of the mining industry has left the area and ranching has taken a hit due to severe droughts and a pandemic-induced plunge in cattle prices.

The area’s shift to a more tourist-based economy has also stalled as ridership on Amtrak and restrictions on interstate travel have deterred some from making the journey.

And so many cases in such a short span of time has had adverse effects on the area’s limited health care resources. The county’s sole hospital, Miners’ Colfax Medical Center, is a small, 25-bed facility and is already feeling the pressure of the surge.

“They’re pushed to the limit,” Kern said. “They had one (intensive care) bed earlier in the week, but I’m sure that’s probably filled now.”

Miners’ Colfax CEO Bo Beames did not return requests for comment for this article, but had told the Journal in October that his hospital had been expecting a surge and was already struggling with employees testing positive.

As far as combatting the surge is concerned, Vigil said they need more residents to be tested before they have symptoms and to abide by mandates to wear masks and socially distance. Otherwise, numbers could get worse as winter deepens.

“I wish we could get folks to get tested more,” Vigil said. “It seems like the vast majority of people that are actually getting tested are folks that have already reached that symptomatic phase – that means you’ve already been transmitting it to other people for two to three days.”

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