For the last seven weeks, health officials in Mesa County, Colorado, have been scrambling to contain the highly transmissible Delta variant of the novel coronavirus. But now, as a huge music festival kicks off, time may be up.
As the first location in Colorado to positively identify the presence of the variant deemed potentially more deadly and at least 50 percent more contagious on May 5, the county, nestled at the state’s border with Utah, only had five cases. Within a month, with the vaccination rate in the area low, the variant positivity rate soared 2,500 percent.
And health-care officials believe that number will only go higher—especially with the start of Country Jam, the state’s largest three-day music festival that has already sold 50,000 tickets. The potential disaster site pitted vaccine holdouts against an extra-contagious variant of COVID-19—one that may make people sicker, faster—in a local encapsulation of a phenomenon experts fear will play out in anti-vaxxer bastions nationwide.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20 years in health care,” Dr. Thomas Tobin, the chief medical examiner in Community Hospital in Grand Junction, told The Daily Beast, adding that his hospital is almost at capacity. “Pretty much everyone that’s coming into the hospital is unvaccinated. Some of those people swear they don’t believe in COVID all the way up to when they’re in their hospital room, strapped to machines.”
“And now with Country Jam? From a medical standpoint, the question is how much worse is it going to get for us here in Mesa.”
A spokesperson for the Mesa County Health Department told The Daily Beast that as of Thursday, the county was “approaching 300 cases” of the Delta variant—making it the dominant strain in the county and resulting in an uptick in hospitalization and deaths. And state officials believe that caseload, which accounts for about 54 percent of all Delta cases in Colorado, is only expected to worsen given the abundance of residents who have refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are seeing the variant spreads more easily between people, and we know that because of this we don’t know about every case. So we suspect the actual number is greater, and growing at a more alarming pace than we have data for,” Mesa County Health Department spokesperson Amanda Mayle said.
“Right now, we are seeing more Delta variant [cases] in our community” instead of the Alpha variant first identified in the U.K., the spokesperson added. “So as of right now, the Delta variant is our dominant strain.”
The variant, first detected in India, has since made its way to at least 60 countries, and it currently comprises at least 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the United States. The highly transmissible variant can cause more severe illness, and may even carry double the risk of hospitalization compared to the Alpha variant. It can also cause several alarming symptoms, including hearing loss and gastric distress.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a specialist in infectious diseases, stressed to The Daily Beast that the “only reason we are even talking about the Delta variant in the United States is because of the unvaccinated population.”
“Vaccine hesitancy is making the Delta variant a bigger problem than it needed to be so we will see the variant spread rapidly in an unvaccinated population,” Adalja said, adding that while the surge will be different than what the country saw last year, we will continue to see an increase in hospitalization in areas where people still refuse to get the jab.
Adalja added that this variant is “50 to 60 times more contagious than the Alpha variant, so why roll the dice.”
In Grand Junction, Mesa’s county seat, there are only two hospitals trying to contain the influx of hospital patients. Tobin said that both were nearing capacity, a reality that the chief medical examiner said was frustrating his staff “because at this point this is all preventable.”
“Our COVID-19 numbers are getting close to what we saw in November and December—when we had hit our apex. And the primary reason is people not getting vaccinated,” Tobin said. “We are frustrated, we’re tired, and it’s upsetting to look around our state and the country and see other places having to drop COVID-19 numbers while we are surging.”
“Every time we think we’re getting out head above water, we’re back in the trenches, back to where we were months ago. We’re treading water, hoping that a life vest will be thrown and it doesn’t come.”
Mayle said that despite the alarming rise in infections, the county’s vaccination rate is “lagging behind other parts of Colorado.” To date, only about 40 percent of the county’s 154,210 population is fully inoculated, and 44 percent has gotten at least one vaccine shot.
“We are steadily increasing our vaccination rate because we want more people to be vaccinated. But there are parts of Colorado that are doing better,” she said.
The Mesa County Health Department added that there are several reasons for vaccine hesitancy in the county, including concerns about missing work from vaccination side effects, the long-term effects of the jab, and its overall effectiveness.
Nicole Inman, a 45-year-old archaeologist and historian who lives in Mesa County, can easily list the litany of excuses for why those close to her won’t get vaccinated despite the “extremely concerning” Delta variant.
“It is just the flu. The vaccine is experimental. Just let your immune system do its job. The government is trying to control us. It is insanity,” Marie, who is vaccinated, told The Daily Beast, adding that strong opposition is also “primarily anti-government sentiment.”
One of her biggest concerns is what she describes as a “perfect storm” of low vaccination rates—plus the upcoming holiday weekend and Country Jam.
The festival, which in 2017 boasted 92,000 attendees, has returned to Mesa County for the first time since 2019 and has garnered impressive headline artists—including Luke Comes, Toby Eith, and Carrie Underwood. On its official website, Country Jam has urged concert-goers to get vaccines or tested for COVID-19 prior to the event.
Noting Mesa County’s current COVID-19 surge, the festival also has asked that masks be worn at all times and for three feet of social distancing to be maintained.
Mayle added that the state mobile vaccine bus will also be at the three-day festival and that they are working with “festival organizers to ensure concert-goers know the risks associated with large events and there has been direct messaging to participants about the spread of the Delta variant in our community.”
“Safety messages will be broadcast throughout the venue. Residents who are not feeling well are advised to stay home, and all concert-goers will be urged on-site to exercise caution and take prevention measures; especially in non-ventilated areas where large crowds gather—places like food and beverage lines and restrooms,” Mayle said. The festival did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“I am not a health professional, but it seems as if [the concert] is a great opportunity for the Delta variant to spread across the country, which is certain to begin another wave of illness,” Inman said.
She added that while the concert is held in a large open agricultural field, those attending the event will need lodging and food.
“I just hope that those who hesitated before the variant will feel more motivated to be vaccinated,” she said. “All of the people traveling here, picking up the variant, will, I assume, then expose their family/friends at a July 4 celebration.”