Teller County Still Battling COVID Epidemic; Facing Rising Death Toll

OSHA Vaccine Mandate Rules Put on Hold

Rick Langenberg

The COVID-19 menace continues to plague Teller County, as a result of the rising death toll and potential economic impacts from pending federal vaccine mandates.

The Cripple Creek City Council and the Teller County commissioners heard more somber reports last week regarding the continual coronavirus assault, with 30 percent of  county-wide COVID total fatalities since the pandemic started occurring in the last 45 days. In fact, more than 70 percent of COVID-related deaths have occurred in 2021.

And once again, the commissioners, while not fully endorsing the vaccines as a regulatory step, made a strong pitch in encouraging these shots to protect individuals from illness and potential deaths.

“We continue to fight this fight,” said Teller County Commission Vice-chairman Dan Williams.  “These are our friends and neighbors,” added the commissioner in describing the escalating death toll in both Teller and El Paso counties.

He especially raised the red flag in citing a trend now that has COVID deaths rivaling those of veteran-related suicide totals.  Williams expressed much empathy towards family members of COVID victims and urged people to consider safe precautions, such as taking the COVID vaccines and  additional booster shots. “Be hyper-vigilant.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by Commissioner Erik Stone. He stressed that the vaccine and mask-wearing protection is an individual choice, and the commissioners stand behind the philosophy of respecting the personal health decisions of Teller citizens.

But similar to comments made at a previous meeting, Stone stated that residents need to be aware of current data, reinforcing the fact that people who are vaccinated face less health risks when infected by COVID-19.  “It does prevent serious illness and death,” said the commissioner. He cited stats indicating that 90 percent of the county’s COVID-related hospitalization cases involved unvaccinated individuals.  Moreover, 100 percent of the recent toll of vaccination fatalities in Teller County came from unvaccinated citizens. “We want you to look at the facts,” said Stone.

Still, county and city leaders oppose any local and state COVID mandates.

On the upside, Teller County Administrator Sheryl Decker reported much progress with hundreds of citizens participating in recent clinics and getting vaccinated for their booster and initial COVID shots.

She said Teller’s numbers were declining somewhat, with the county recording  77 cases in the last week.

However, she said this decline is occurring at a much slower rate, compared to a year ago, when the region got hit with an earlier surge.

And even with a slight slowdown in COVID inflictions, Teller still is showing red danger numbers,  numbers that may have forced a partial shutdown under the state’ former regulations.

“Unfortunately, we continue to go in the wrong direction,” said Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris, a member of the county’s coronavirus task force, at last week’s council meeting.

Like the commissioners, Harris expressed deep concern about the rising death toll. He noted that out of nearly 40 COVID deaths in Teller County since the beginning of the pandemic, 71 percent of these have occurred in 2021, demonstrating the fatal impact of the Delta variant.  And the recent death trend continues with seven COVID fatalities in early November alone, as of the middle of last week, according to Harris’ report.

While experiencing an occasional surge, Teller County hasn’t gotten hit with that many COVID deaths, until the last two months.  This is a development that has made health officials and elected leaders quite nervous.

For the first few weeks of November, Teller County reported 228 COVID cases, meaning it may be on track for another record month.  The city of Cripple Creek recently reported an outbreak at their fire station, a development that forced emergency action.

Oddly enough, the trend still remains unchanged regarding the sources of the cases, with Woodland generating the far majority of  the inflictions, followed by Florissant, Divide and Cripple Creek. The county is edging slowly towards a 60 percent compliance rate, regarding citizens fully vaccinated.

Economic Threats Growing

Health scares are not the only COVID threats facing the county.

In his council report, Interim Cripple Creek City Administrator Ray White cited the new OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations, part of requirements proposed by President Joe Biden, dealing with vaccine and testing mandates for employees of private companies with 100 or more workers.

White said this mandate would have a big impact on local casinos and the CC/V Gold Mining Company, owned by Newmont.

But later in the week, OSHA officials announced that it would not be implementing this mandate due to a variety of legal court challenges

“It is our understanding that the implementation of this by OSHA has been put on hold,” said White, in an interview late last week. White said the latest reports, indicate that OSHA won’t implement these rules until the legal cases get resolved.

Originally, businesses faced a Jan. 4 deadline, meaning that it would have to start gearing up for the changes later this month or by early December.

The court challenges could provide a dose of temporary economic relief for local casinos. In a previous meeting with the city, several casino operators cited these rules as  a real game changer, heightening the workforce shortage problems the industry has experienced. One leading gaming manager even commented that they may have to decide which casino to shut down, based on the implementation of these rules.

Under these rules, any employees not vaccinated must wear masks at all times and have regular COVID tests, at their own expense.

City and local governments would not be impacted by this rule.

The county commissioners have joined other GOP leaders in heavily criticizing this potential action. Some have referred this measure to a form of economic suicide.

Vaccine mandates have already created some outrage, with regular  protests held in Woodland Park. A “March Against Medical Mandates,”  organized by the Teller Liberty Coalition, is scheduled for Nov. 6 in Woodland Park.