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How a bridge club led a Colorado county to have one of the nation’s highest coronavirus death rates

Four of El Paso County’s 13 deaths are connected to the Colorado Springs Bridge Center, where potentially hundreds of at-risk people were exposed to COVID-19 in late February and early March. Two others are linked to a senior care center.

Pikes Peak rises above downtown Colorado Springs. Access to the mountains makes Colorado a desirable place to live. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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El Paso County has one of the nation’s highest fatality rates of the new coronavirus, surpassing communities in other states that have been hard hit by the disease. 

At least 13 deaths have been attributed to the virus in El Paso County, the highest tally among Colorado counties and roughly one-fifth of the state’s 70 total deaths through Tuesday evening.

As of Saturday, El Paso County’s death rate — at 5% among the 286 people with confirmed infections — ranked sixth in the nation among counties with at least 100 confirmed cases, according to local public health officials. 

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“Undoubtedly, we have had a large number of deaths right out of the gate here,” said Dr. Leon Kelly, El Paso County Public Health’s deputy medical director.

But coronavirus is not spreading in El Paso County faster than in other areas. The number of confirmed cases per capita in El Paso County is relatively low when compared to the rates of infection in places like Denver and Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties. 

El Paso County and Denver have roughly the same population, about 720,000 people. But Denver had nearly double the number of confirmed cases through Tuesday morning compared to its southern Colorado counterpart.

It’s just that the virus entered El Paso County’s population in two of the worst possible places: the Colorado Springs Bridge Center and a long-term senior care facility, where scores of older and more vulnerable people were exposed. 

“The virus started out here in a population that can least afford to have it,” said Kelly, who also is El Paso County’s coroner. “Unfortunately, when that happens, as we’ve seen in other places, you get a large number of those folks who die. Our local infections occurred in the most susceptible among us in this community and that story is playing out exactly like you’d expect, unfortunately.”

Four deaths have been linked back to tournament play over six days in late February and early March at the Bridge Center, where people get together to play cards. Two more deaths have come from the Laurel Manor Care Center in southeast Colorado Springs, where there has been an outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The exterior of the Colorado Springs Bridge Center. (Provided by FOX21 Colorado Springs)

The remaining seven deaths, Kelly said, are considered community transmissions but are unrelated to the two clusters.

All of the El Paso County deaths thus far have been among people 60 and older. Seven of the deaths have been among people 80 and older. The rate of hospitalization among confirmed cases is also much higher in the county, another sign that more vulnerable people have become infected.

The Bridge Center cluster

Colorado’s first death was an El Paso County woman in her 80s. She was tested posthumously, Kelly said, and when health officials interviewed her family members they were alarmed by what they discovered. 

The woman had been at the Colorado Springs Bridge Center for at least six games between Feb. 27 and March 3. Worse yet, she was symptomatic while she was there. 

The games happened before Colorado’s first coronavirus cases were announced on March 5 and long before any social distancing measures were put into place. Instead, people were only being encouraged to cough and sneeze into their elbows and wash their hands as frequently as possible. 

El Paso County Public Health immediately reached out to the Bridge Center, which had already canceled its events after hearing the woman had become ill. The center provided health officials with a list of people the woman may have come into contact with. 

“We actually identified more than a dozen individuals who had become ill or were symptomatic. And then, from that group of people we followed that out and discovered that one of those individuals had participated in a choir practice that involved more than 100 people again,” Kelly said. 

Eventually, health officials identified 300 potential contacts stemming from the Bridge Center. (“We all had to learn about bridge very quickly,” Kelly said.)

MORE: Does everyone over 60 need to take coronavirus precautions? In Colorado, that group has accounted for the most hospitalizations, deaths

Health officials still don’t know where the woman was infected. She didn’t have a travel history and didn’t have any contacts outside of El Paso County. She appears to have been the first case of community spread in the Colorado Springs area. 

“She didn’t bring it into the community,” Kelly said. “She was just one more person in the chain of events that led to what we are dealing with now.”

The effects of the cluster, meanwhile, are still being felt.

“We still have additional ill individuals who not necessarily were at the bridge tournament, but maybe contacts of individuals who were at the bridge tournament,” Kelly said. “It radiates outwardly from that original social group.”

The Laurel Manor cluster

The outbreak at Laurel Manor, which isn’t believed to be connected to the Bridge Center cluster, continues to be a problem. 

Kelly said there are more patients there who are testing positive and that El Paso County Public Health is working with the facility to try to limit spread and to care for infected patients.

“As of now, we’re reporting out two deaths at that facility,” Kelly said. “And, obviously, given that patient population there’s likely to be more coming out in the future.”

Volunteers of America, which runs Laurel Manor, confirmed the deaths and said it is taking a number of precautions to prevent the situation from worsening. 

“Our hearts also go out to our residents and employees during this difficult time,” VOA spokesman David M. Burch said in a written statement. “Laurel Manor Care Center staff has been closely following CDC protocols and we are continuing to work closely with El Paso County Public Health. Out of privacy concerns for our residents, our employees and their families, we are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”

Kelly said infected patients at the facility are being cared for there as to not overwhelm local hospitals. “That’s really the best place for them to get care,” he said of the care center. 

On March 19, there were six reported cases at Laurel Manor. Public health officials have said proactive efforts there have been focused on identifying, isolating and testing patients who may be at risk.

“These are fragile, sick folks on a good day,” Kelly said. “Then you add the virus to it.” 

There are at least 16 residential and non-hospital health care facilities in Colorado that have been identified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as the site of outbreaks. They include:

  • Two in Larimer County
  • Two in El Paso County
  • Two in Weld County
  • Two in Denver 
  • Two in Arapahoe County
  • One in Chaffee County
  • One in Routt County
  • One in Adams County
  • One in Jefferson County
Pikes Peak and a housing development form a backdrop for a herd of about 30 pronghorn last in northeastern Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The takeaways

Kelly says the deadly clusters at Laurel Manor and stemming from the Bridge Center underscore why it’s so important to adhere to social distancing guidelines and orders issued by local governments and the state. 

One infected person can wreak havoc on an entire community.

“This particularly tragic incident highlights, really, what we are stressing,” he said. “It’s that all it really takes is one person in the wrong place at the wrong time to really allow this thing to get locally out of control. Every citizen needs to be diligent and disciplined.”

Kelly said the El Paso County outbreaks occurred in “worst-case-scenario populations.”

Public health officials are working hard to mitigate further spread of the illness. El Paso County is still tracing the contacts of infected people as other health departments have stopped the practice. 

Supplies of personal protective equipment are dwindling, but health officials are working to make sure long-term care facilities have enough on hand, and are training caregivers to prevent the virus’ spread.

“This is why we have to put these restrictions in place currently,” Kelly said. “Because this virus is very difficult to contain if people continue to congregate in large groups. It can really overwhelm our ability to contain it as well as our health care system’s ability to treat those who may suffer the consequences of that spread.”


Updated on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, at 4:31 p.m.: This story has been updated with new statistics on coronavirus deaths and confirmed cases in Colorado from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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