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It’s been 165 days since Governor Jared Polis confirmed the first cases of COVID-19 in Colorado. In the time since, the novel coronavirus has spread—sometimes like wildfire—to every pocket of the state.
Well, almost every pocket. There’s one Colorado county out of 64 that has managed to evade the virus for the past 23 weeks (and counting), baffling residents and spurring wide-ranging theories. What is it about Kiowa County?
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Located 124 miles east of Pueblo on the Kansas border, Kiowa is a rural, agriculture-based community of about 1,400. Enter the county on U.S. 287 South, and you’ll see nothing but vast stretches of shrubland and wide open sky until the first signs of civilization—electrical towers and small roadside farms—finally dot the horizon. Dubbed “the Trumpiest county in Colorado” after more than 85 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Kiowa’s low population density—there are just .8 people per square mile—likely explains, in part, its coronavirus-free existence.
“The fact that we practice social distancing because of our lifestyle I think is a big part of it,” says Joe Shields, mayor of Eads, the county seat. Ellen Lane, chief nursing officer at Kiowa County Hospital District in Eads, agrees: “We have a lot of ranchers and farmers who work alone and there aren’t big, huge gathering places.”
Indeed, on a recent Sunday afternoon visit to Eads—with about 600 residents, the largest city in Kiowa—the place felt like a ghost town. Every business on Maine Street (save a small ice cream shop) appeared shuttered, and I spotted just a handful of folks over the course of 20 minutes. No wonder there are no COVID-19 cases here, I thought. There are barely any people.
But a stop at Hometown Gas & Grill, a convenience store and restaurant located at the northwest edge of Eads on U.S. 287, soon changed my impression. Inside, I counted 16 people, including 14 who were not wearing masks despite multiple “mask required to enter” signs hanging on the front doors and windows.
Mandy Adamson, manager of Hometown Gas & Grill, says that in accordance with the current statewide mask mandate, she requires all employees to wear masks (although one was not during my visit) and prefers that all customers wear them, too. But she admits she doesn’t enforce the rule if folks enter barefaced, an ethos echoed by others in town.
“We’re still not strict on the masks,” says Bev Lyon, a Kiowa resident who works at Eads’ only grocery store. “You know, if you want to wear one, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s great, too.”
“This corner of the state is pretty into individual choice,” explains Meagan Hillman, director of public health for Kiowa and neighboring Prowers counties. Case-in-point: A sign taped to the door of a business on Maine Street reads “Face masks required by diktat* of Colorado Governor Jared Polis,” with the asterisk defining diktat as “an order or decree imposed by someone in power without popular consent.”
Kiowa’s nonchalance over mask-wearing worries Hillman, who lives in Prowers, but she thinks residents will show better compliance when the virus creeps closer (she sees its arrival as inevitable) and says her health department won’t punish those who disobey the mandate in the meantime. “We’re really here for education,” she says. “So we try, if there are complaints [about lack of mask-wearing], to address those and just educate on the reasons why masks are currently required.”
Hillman claims the secret to Kiowa’s success is the fact that it’s so insulated. “I mean, people go places, or they’ll come to [Prowers] County to go shopping or whatever, but in general, they stay in family groups and groups of friends and they just don’t do a lot else,” she says.
But Tom Davis, the sole pharmacist in Kiowa, disagrees. Over the summer, he points out, local families traveled to out-of-state youth sporting events, and recently, residents visited more densely populated parts of Colorado for dentist appointments and other specialty healthcare. “We’re not sitting out here under a bubble,” he says. There’s also the fact that three major highways—U.S. 287, U.S. 385, and CO 96—intersect the county, bringing cross-country truckers and tourists from Texas, Kansas, and other states into Kiowa’s convenience stores.
What else might explain Kiowa’s scot-free record?
Strict health precautions implemented early at Prairie Pines, an assisted living facility in Eads, may have helped the county avoid a serious outbreak like the ones that devastated other elderly communities in Colorado, surmises resident Betsy Barnett. Similar protocols were also instituted at the hospital, which provides long-term in-patient care for elderly patients, including several centenarians, says Lane.
Another pervasive theory among residents is that COVID-19 already came to Kiowa. “Back in November, December, a lot of us were really sick in the community with an upper respiratory infection,” says Brandy Turcotte, administrator at Prairie Pines. “And a lot of people, myself included, were testing negative for flu, and we’d all gotten our flu shots.”
Hillman is quick to dismiss this idea. She theorizes that if the sickness Turcotte and others had last winter was indeed COVID-19, it would have inflicted more harm on the population. Also, no one in Kiowa has tested positive for virus antibodies so far, she notes.
A close look at COVID-19 testing data suggests another explanation: lower-than-average testing. As of August 15, about 130 tests had been administered in Kiowa County, according to Hillman. She couldn’t say how many people had been tested, but if you assume the highest number possible—130—that would mean about 9.2 percent of Kiowa County’s total population has been tested so far, compared to about 10.7 percent of Colorado’s total population tested, per data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (Of course, the percentage tested in Kiowa could be even lower if some residents were tested multiple times.)
But Lane, the chief nursing officer, believes the county has “been pretty aggressive” with testing. Currently, residents who meet certain criteria can obtain drive-through testing in Eads, and lab personnel in full protective gear will even test residents at home, if needed.
Ultimately, Lane feels that protection from God is what’s helped her community dodge the virus. Shields, Eads’ mayor, chalks it up to “luck of the draw.” And Lyon surmises Kiowa residents simply have stronger immune systems than most. “We’re healthy stock out in rural areas,” she says. “We’re more resistant because we play with dirt all the time.”
Hillman, however, says it’s only a matter of time until coronavirus comes to this corner of Colorado. “The chances of [the number of confirmed cases] staying at zero are like almost nothing,” she says, expressing concern over the fact that in-person schooling resumed last week (Kiowa County School District superintendent Glenn Smith says schools are following local- and state-recommended health precautions) and that the annual county fair is scheduled to begin in September.
If COVID-19 finally does infiltrate the community, the effects could be severe. “We’re in a community that is primarily at risk,” says Davis, the pharmacist. Almost a quarter of Kiowa residents (23 percent) are 65 or older, and Kiowa County Hospital District, a 25-bed facility and the only hospital in the county, does not have an intensive care unit or critical care physicians on staff. “If we were to have an outbreak of COVID-19 in our hospital, it could potentially close our doors for a time,” worries Lane. “And then there would be no healthcare in this area.”
That’s a harrowing reality to imagine. But for now, the question remains: What is it about Kiowa? Maybe they survived the virus last winter; maybe the grace of God is on their side; maybe they’re just lucky. Whatever the reason, in the county where cattle outnumber people 13 to 1, where Trump 2020 flags billow over farm equipment, where individual choice outweighs government mandates, residents hope the good fortune continues.