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Caroline Llanes reflects on COVID reporting and future pandemic communications

Aspen COVID gondy plaza AH.jpg
Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
Skiers wear masks in Aspen’s Gondola Plaza in Nov., 2020.

Aspen Public Radio Reporter Caroline Llanes took a look back at the COVID-19 pandemic on the Western Slope in a 2-part series with Aspen Journalism in September.

Llanes and Aspen Journalism's Data Desk Editor Laurine Lassalle compared the various responses from public health departments and described the discrepancy between case and death rates in the region.

All Things Considered Anchor Halle Zander spoke with Llanes on the consequences of these different approaches and the future COVID communications.

Halle Zander: You said masking restrictions in Basalt varied from one side of town to the other. Can you give us some examples of these hyper-local differences?

Caroline Llanes: Sure. So, I think one really good example of that was at the very beginning of the pandemic. We're still talking about 2020 here. Pitkin County passed a mask mandate much earlier than Eagle County did. They did it sometime in the spring.

And then Eagle County didn't end up enacting a mask mandate until July of 2020. So you have all of these businesses and they tend to be on the north side of the county line in Eagle County. You have all these businesses that don't require masks.

And two of the biggest grocery stores in town like Whole Foods and City Market, both in El Jebel, they didn't have mask requirements and those were the grocery stores that everyone was going to. That's kind of one example.

And we saw that again in September of 2021. During the summer, people kind of lifted mask mandates. People were able to be outside more. But then in September of 2021, Pitkin County went back to an indoor mask mandate and Eagle didn't. So you had, again, that divide from one side of town to the other.

Zander: In your story, you talk about Mesa County, Gunnison County, Pitkin and Eagle. What about Garfield? What's some highlights from their kind of COVID saga?

Llanes: It seems like many county officials were kind of in this tightrope walk between wanting to keep Garfield's economy up and running and also between, you know, wanting to to keep people safe.

From the public health perspective, I think something that came up quite a bit was the rising cost of living. Honestly, in Garfield County that was really tough for public health employees to be able to have a place to live and to want to stay and feel like they were being paid what they were worth in order to afford where they were living.

Zander: So how do you feel the cultural divides that arose from masking have left an impact on our community?

Llanes: That's a really good question and it can be kind of tough to say because there aren't the public health restrictions that we saw earlier in the pandemic. But I think it kind of tended to fall along the lines of people who are already predisposed who perhaps want less government interference in public life.

The libertarian political ideology, you could call it, those people kind of saw the public health restrictions as more of an infringement than there already was. And so that kind of sharpened those divides. And there's definitely still some kind of sore feelings about that.

But I think we do need to acknowledge that despite how those people might feel that public health officials weren't listening to them, those public health officials were dealing with a completely unprecedented situation.

I know it's been said, but we had never seen this kind of thing before in our living memory. Public health officials are members of their communities as well. They felt that divide for sure.

Zander: Do you think there's going to be any buy-in if masking restrictions have to go into effect again?

Llanes: Honestly, it seems like at this point in time there's not a whole lot of political will from elected officials to enforce any kind of mask mandate. I think if it came down to it, public health officials would try and push elected officials in that direction if they felt, ‘Yeah, this is going to be the safest thing for our communities.’ But there's not a whole lot of political will.

The pandemic was tough on everyone. It was tough on schools. It was tough on local businesses. It was tough on just people who kind of felt like they were becoming isolated from their communities.

And I think people really, really want to move forward whether we actually have to move forward. You know, it's probably going to be a tough winter for respiratory conditions. We've heard that from the health experts. So it's really going to be a game time call.

Zander: So if COVID or another pandemic were to rear its head again, which counties do you think would be best suited to respond on the Western Slope?

Llanes: I do want to preface this by saying that kind of nationally, the pandemic revealed that a lot of public health systems weren’t ready.

That being said, I think places that are going to do the best are places where public health and human services departments have good relationships with community members. They have a presence and are bridging the gap for our Spanish speaking community.

Definitely I think Eagle County undertook a really aggressive public information campaign regarding the pandemic. And I think any public health departments and counties that kind of took that step during the pandemic, if they keep building those relationships, I think we're going to be in a lot better place.

Zander: Are there any counties in particular that you think are going to face more challenges next go-around?

Llanes: I think probably Mesa and Delta counties were the ones that stood out to me as maybe not having as much. But Delta County especially was kind of a … it was really an eye opening one for me. I had a nurse practitioner who worked there tell me we aren't really doing a public information campaign. And so I think that while that might appeal to a more independent sensibility, I don't think it's going to make a whole lot of progress in getting that public trust in our public health institutions.

Zander: Okay, so your second story is about death rates from COVID in different types of Western slope communities. And resort communities like Aspen saw higher case rates than more rural counties on the Western Slope, but they also saw much lower death rates. So did resort communities have more resources to treat these patients? What's that discrepancy?

Llanes: I don't know about more resources per se, but I do think that they had, for example, a better action plan. Like Aspen, where we are right now, they are kind of used to this sort of expanding and contracting population. So I think that having that flexibility also lended itself well to being able to meet the challenges of the pandemic: To say, ‘Okay, here's what we need to do. We are used to making these changes. Now we have to make them in real time.’

And I will say for folks here in the Roaring Fork Valley, I think we probably have more options than people in other parts of the county in terms of health care. That kind of access to health care is definitely not universal across the Western Slope.

Like, for example, I was talking about Delta County. They do not have as many locations to receive that kind of health care. So it's definitely kind of a tougher situation in terms of just having access, having a hospital nearby that you can go to if you're feeling sick.

Zander: Given what you know, having reported on this series, what do you think we should reasonably expect from our public health officials next time?

Llanes: Honestly, I think over communication is better than under communication. There is a lot of information out there. Things were changing constantly. I think that kind of contributed to some people's mistrust of certain institutions—of their local leaders. And I think it really needs to be emphasized that part of the process, the scientific method, if you will, is learning as we go and changing our views with the most up to date science.

Maybe there's a little uncertainty, but if we expect that communication from our elected officials and our public health officials, I think that we're going to have a lot more buy-in from the public.

Zander: Well, thank you, Caroline, for being here today and for speaking with me.

Llanes: Thank you. This was great, Halle.

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.