SIMLA, Colorado – An isolated ranching community in the High Plains is the last place its residents expect to be the first for anything, especially a new, more infectious variant of the coronavirus. But on Wednesday, state health officials announced that the first known case of the variant in the United States had been confirmed at a nursing home in Simla, Colorado.
The variant had infected a National Guard soldier sent to help with a Covid-19 outbreak at the city’s Good Samaritan Society nursing home. A second soldier from the nursing home has tested positive and may also have the variant, Emily Travanty, acting director of the state’s public health laboratory, said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
All 26 residents of the nursing home and 20 of its 24 regular employees have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks, and four residents have died. It was not clear whether the two National Guard soldiers were infected at the nursing home or caught the virus before arriving in Simla. They arrived on Dec. 23, after most cases had occurred at the facility, said Dr Rachel Herlihy, a Colorado state epidemiologist.
Simla is an unlikely place for a virus variant recently detected in the UK to show up. Most of the things that are happening don’t happen here. Trends come and go without notice. News is usually something viewed from a distance. For generations, this windswept expanse of short-grass prairie perched 6,000 feet, about 80 miles southeast of Denver, has been shaped primarily by the timeless rhythms of cattle ranching.
On Wednesday morning, after the virus broke in Simla, a resident was asked what had changed on the city’s only cobblestone street in the 29 years she had lived there. She looked west towards the tangle of snow-covered lawn mowers past MT Small Engine Repair, then east, where a herd of wild turkeys languidly crossed the main street past the Coach-Lite Motel entirely. empty, and said, “Nothing. “
This was more or less true when the virus arrived in the United States earlier this year. Many of Simla’s roughly 600 residents went on with their lives assuming that, like most things sweeping the country, the pandemic would pass them by.
“When the virus started in the spring, it was calving season and we were too busy to pay much attention,” said Don Bailey, a retired biology professor who now herds black Angus cattle in a ranch outside of town. “We check the herd five or six times a day, and you don’t have to wear a mask when you go out with the cows.”
The summer passed with almost no cases in the county, and community life continued with little change. Members of 4-H showed their prizes of sheep and cattle at the county fair, the school remained in session and the elders still gathered for coffee each morning at Simla’s only breakfast, the Country. Corner Cafe.
“We went ahead and canceled a dinner we have with friends every Wednesday, but otherwise things have generally remained the same,” said Bailey, 71. Even with the pandemic, he kept the Saddle Museum of Antiquities open for a man he built into a dependency on its spread – though the net of visitors would hardly break most social distancing regulations.
The city’s sense of isolation from the global problem changed in late fall when a second wave of infections swept through Colorado and hit Simla and surrounding Elbert County particularly hard, the sending in the threat level of “severe risk” state, where it remains today. Soon, almost everyone in this united community knew someone who was sick.
“I have a friend in intensive care right now,” said Cené Kurtchi, 71, who runs the cafe with her husband, Michael. “There are a lot of people in town who are sick. They’ll say it’s just the flu or bronchitis, but it’s 26 miles from the nearest place you can get tested.
The response to the virus is shaped not only by geography but also by politics. President Trump won 74% of the vote here in November. Signs supporting it still grow on almost every block. One on the fence of a quiet side street read: “SAVE FREEDOM, VOTE TRUMP.”
In a pandemic where precautions have become political, many residents refuse to wear masks. About a quarter of shoppers to the Simla Food Store on Wednesday had their faces uncovered, even though they were only half a block from the nursing home where the entire patient population has recently been. tested positive and the mutant virus appeared.
Ms Kurtchi shook her head, discussing the lack of masks. Some of her longtime neighbors have called for a coffee boycott because she and her husband need masks.
TV news crews gathered outside the modest one-story retirement home on Wednesday as cleaning crews in hazmat suits sneaked in and out through a back door where the strong smell of cleaning supplies floated down an alley.
The state sent a team to the retirement home on Tuesday to collect new specimens from residents and staff. Based on the samples tested so far, Dr Herlihy said, it doesn’t appear that the variant is circulating in the facility, but other samples were tested on Wednesday.
The National Guard soldier has confirmed to have the variant in segregation at his home in Arapahoe County, a suburb of Denver, and the one with the suspected case is in the process of isolating at a Limon city hotel in the city of Limon. ‘is, said Dr Herlihy.
In Simla’s only craft shop, on a dirt road where the only visitors were half a dozen local cats basking in the winter sun outside the front door, the owner, Carla Tracy, had just come from hang up the phone with a friend who had told him the new variant had arrived in their town.
“My God, this tiny town that most people can’t even find on a map,” she says. “And we thought we wouldn’t have a lot of problems with the virus. Then it hit us. It’ll just show you it’s everywhere. “