The unique struggle of rural Colorado

To the editor,

In early March, many rural Coloradans initially assumed they would be safe from COVID-19; the television coverage showed crowded cities; huge, overflowing hospitals; and long lines at the grocery store. We wanted to be immune. We wanted to just continue with our daily lives.

Then we couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Gunnison County now has one of the highest per-capita incidences of COVID-19 in the state. It has affected people living in Crested Butte and Gunnison, the small towns of Pitkin and Parlin, and those living miles from anyone. The county has closed itself off, limiting entrance to only those with essential needs, like groceries or gas. The virus does not care if they are rural or not.

It has taken a while for nearby areas to feel the effect, but now every county in Colorado has someone who is either being tested or diagnosed. Per capita, the impact on rural Colorado is just as dramatic as it is elsewhere.

Rural issues are different than the urban versions. Our hospitals are stretched thin even during healthier times. Many do not have ICU rooms or have a limited number of ventilators. Their staffs are capable, but small. Bed space is scarce, and additional resources, such as more staffing and more personal protection equipment, are difficult to find.

When people in Hinsdale County get sick, they can be seen at their Lake City Area Medical Center, but if their symptoms are serious, they are taken to Grand Junction, 160 miles away, or to the Gunnison Valley Health Hospital, which is at capacity.

The Public Health Departments in Southwest Colorado is utterly remarkable. Not only is it doing everything it can to organize, treat patients, and advocate for more testing, supplies and medical professionals, it also communicates regularly with communities about the current situation.

Communication in rural areas can be difficult, at best. In Durango, many homes receive only New Mexico news, unless they are on DISH or DirectTV; getting any information from Denver about what’s going on in Colorado is necessary, but challenging. We are told to get our information and testing locations online, but we can only do that if we are equipped with broadband.

The testing, of course, like in all of Colorado, is not sufficient. Most of us suspect there are a lot of people who have COVID-19, and anyone with symptoms should self-isolate. Everyone in Colorado is being asked to wear facemasks out in public, whether they feel well or not.

Some people, particularly ranchers and farmers, do not have the luxury of staying inside, away from others. They need to be working constantly outside, meeting people when they go into town for supplies. But they are facing a dwindling demand from farmer’s markets, restaurants, schools and universities. Prices are falling. So many consumers are losing their jobs and may be buying less when the markets open again.

The mountain counties have lost their tourism base, affecting every aspect of their economy, while also having a high number of coronavirus cases, likely brought in by their international visitors. The Colorado Tourism Board is ramping up promoting resort areas this fall, where people can drive, but with a slowing economy, the recovery could be more sluggish than in urban areas.

What happens if you live in a rural area, and your grocery store runs out of food? Or toilet paper? We just suffer a little. Many of us do not have an alternative store to visit, but because we live in smaller towns, we generously share our resources with others. We make do.

Since all students are now out of school, the rural districts are emailing work, mailing packets to students, having students pick up work outside the schools or, in some cases, teachers are driving miles to personally drop materials off at front doors.

The federal and state governments have taken special note of rural Colorado, offering help with housing, rent, small business loans, utilities, debt retirement, and financial assistance to individuals, counties and cities. Visit http://www.sba.gov or http://www.covid19.colorado.gov for updated information

Rural Colorado is alive and mostly well, and though we face different struggles than other parts of Colorado, we haven’t lost our sense of neighborhood or endurance.

– Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango