When the coronavirus began its deadly rampage across Colorado, the hardest hit communities were in the high country, where visitors brought the disease from across the globe, and on the populated Front Range, where it easily spread from person to person in crowded urban areas.
But now the county with the highest coronavirus infection rate is an unexpected location: on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
In Morgan County, where outbreaks of the disease at a meatpacking plant, a dairy processing facility and a nursing home have pushed the count of COVID-19 cases to 439 and killed at least 21 people through Wednesday, the rate of infection is more than three times that of Denver.
The situation has become so dire that county health officials are using a refrigerated trailer to store the bodies of the dead because local morgue capacity has been reached. The trailer was put to use the day after it arrived in Fort Morgan, about 60 miles southeast of Greeley.
“The first day that we started putting bodies in, I put four in,” Morgan County Coroner Don Heer said. “We were out of space.”
While the coronavirus has crippled metropolitan areas across the U.S. and Colorado, it has also begun to seep into rural areas that have less capacity to deal with the crisis. And that spread has been driven by outbreaks at meat-processing and dairy plants that anchor many rural economies. Scores of workers have fallen ill and many have died.
Morgan County’s infection rate is 1,540 per every 100,000 people. In neighboring Weld County, which has been hard hit by the virus, the rate is 632 infections per every 100,000 people, compared with 512 for every 100,000 people in Denver.
To understand the scope of the outbreak in Morgan County consider this: Larimer County, which includes Fort Collins and has a population about 12 times larger than Morgan County, has 415 cases and 18 fatalities.
“We definitely have some rising numbers out here,” said Trish McClain, who leads the six-county Northeast Colorado Health Department.
Three outbreaks in Morgan County have been responsible for a sizable number of the infections and deaths:
- The Cargill Meat Solutions plants in Fort Morgan, where as many as 60 workers have been infected and one has died
- The Eben Ezer Lutheran Care Center in Brush, a nursing home where as many as 64 residents and staff have been infected, including 12 residents who have died
- The Leprino Foods cheese plant, where 80 workers have tested positive for the virus
“When you have a large, site-based breakout in a facility that’s a major employer in a town, it quickly leads to community contagion,” said Gov. Jared Polis.
But Morgan County’s location on an interstate corridor and the fact that so many people work in essential industries, like agriculture, also are hastening the infection rate, McClain said.
“We also have community spread. We are on the I-76 corridor, and though we have been under a stay-at-home and a safer-at-home (order), we do have a lot of people in essential industries,” she said. “They still had to go to work.”
McClain said another reason the county is showing so many infections is because there has been a lot of testing. Morgan County’s testing rate is one of the highest in the state at 4,519 per every 100,000 people.
Denver’s testing rate, by comparison, is only 2,240 per every 100,000 people.
“I know that there’s been a lot of targeted testing done by employers,” she said. “Leprino actually tested their entire workforce. That’s a pretty significant number of people to test.”
About 350 people work at the Leprino facility in Fort Morgan.
McClain has shifted resources around in her office to respond. An employee who normally works on tobacco cessation is now managing personal protective equipment supply logistics, for instance.
“We’ve gotten creative,” she said. “We’ve utilized staff that don’t normally do the kind of work they’re doing now.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says it deployed two refrigerated trailers in mid April. One went to Morgan County and the other to Jefferson County.
So far, only the one in Morgan County has been used.
“There are still bodies in the refrigerator,” Heer, the county coroner, said Monday. “We’ve had as high as nine in there.”
Retrofitted to serve as morgues, the nondescript trailers can hold 20 to 25 bodies. The one used by Morgan County was parked at the sheriff’s office, near a strip mall.
Heer has worked for 50 years at the coroner’s office and at a mortuary he owns in the county. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.
His office typically handles four or five deaths a week, but since the coronavirus crisis began it has seen as many as five in one day.
The Morgan County Ambulance Service is another agency that’s been taxed by the outbreak. They’ve converted one of seven ambulances into a coronavirus-only transport vehicle to ferry patients who need to be taken to a Front Range hospital.
“It basically changed the way we run every call,” said Joe King, who leads the ambulance service. “We’ve seen a big increase in COVID symptoms for calls. Some of the other call volume has dropped.”
One of his employees tested positive for coronavirus, but has since recovered.
When coronavirus first reached Morgan County, King says, the crew that handled the initial calls for help were surprised and “on edge a bit.”
Now? “It’s kind of just a daily routine,” he said. “This is how we operate and what we do.”
And the calls haven’t been limited just to the county’s population centers — Fort Morgan and Brush. Some have been on farms or in smaller towns.
“Most of these people, we know,” King said of the patients. “They’re our neighbors and friends.”
“HEROES WORK HERE”
The upside to the outbreak, according to the people interviewed by The Colorado Sun, has been how Morgan County has banded together.
When the ambulance service ran out of personal protection equipment, hardware stores, dentists and construction companies rushed in to fill the gap.
“We are working really well together to handle this big crisis,” said King, of the Morgan County Ambulance Service. “I’m proud of that.”
Both hospitals in Morgan County — Colorado Plains Medical Center in Fort Morgan and East Morgan County Hospital in Brush — declined to make staff available for interviews. But both hospitals confirmed that they’ve treated coronavirus patients.
Colorado Plains is owned by Brentwood, Tennessee-based LifePoint Health. East Morgan County Hospital is part of Banner Health, based in Phoenix.
East Morgan County, which has 25 beds, has dedicated 12 of them for coronavirus patients. As of last week, the hospital in Brush was treating six coronavirus patients and had seen 50 total people with confirmed or suspected cases of the disease since the county’s outbreak began.
“The biggest challenge the hospital faces is in staffing,” East Morgan County Hospital CEO Linda Thorpe said in a written statement. “Patients who have COVID-19 or are suspected of having it require an intense level of care.”
Outside the facility on Wednesday, a message planted in the lawn thanked health care workers.
Administrators at the nonprofit Eben Ezer Lutheran Care Center, the Morgan County nursing home where a major outbreak of the virus was reported, did not return a message seeking comment. But in a recent statement posted to their Facebook page, they offered reassurance.
“We want to make neighbors, their families, and our dedicated staff aware of this situation and reassure everyone that we are on top of it,” the post said.
Downtown Fort Morgan was quiet on Wednesday morning. Library Park in the middle of town was empty and a gazebo was roped off with caution tape. A speaker system played jolly music for no one.
People who were out and about were wearing masks and appeared to be keeping their distance from others.
A colorful display in the storefront of Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. on Fort Morgan’s main drag offered encouragement: “IN THIS TOGETHER.”
Adam Holt, the store’s owner, said he put the message up in late March after he was forced to close because of Colorado’s statewide stay-at-home order. Brown’s reopened as restrictions on Coloradans’ movements eased in the past week. Customers have been slow to return.
“People are still a little leery,” he said. “It’s better than being locked up.”
A few miles east, a the fence at the edge of the property at Eben Ezer in Brush was decorated with a giant message posted for people driving by to read — “HEROES WORK HERE.” This weekend there’s a candlelight vigil and “honk for hope” event scheduled for outside of the care center.