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COVID diaries Colorado: A day in the coronavirus pandemic

April 26, 2020 GMT
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In this Thursday, April 16, 2020, photograph, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock wears a face mask as he listens to speakers at a morning briefing related to the coronavirus pandemic in the Emergency Operations Center in Denver. Hancock’s days are filled with meetings. Questions and concerns pile up with each one as more residents are ignoring the stay-at-home order he put in place through the end of April to control the spread of the virus. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP)
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In this Thursday, April 16, 2020, photograph, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock wears a face mask as he listens to speakers at a morning briefing related to the coronavirus pandemic in the Emergency Operations Center in Denver. Hancock’s days are filled with meetings. Questions and concerns pile up with each one as more residents are ignoring the stay-at-home order he put in place through the end of April to control the spread of the virus. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP)

A teacher greets her students. A firefighter reports for duty. New parents take their baby home from the hospital.

These are routine moments in the lives of Coloradans. But the coronavirus has transformed the routine into the remarkable, upending how we live and interact with each other.

As a heavy spring snow blanketed the state on Thursday, April 16, journalists from news organizations across Colorado set out to chronicle a day in the life of the state’s residents during this extraordinary time.

It happened that this day was the deadliest to date in the U.S. for the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 4,500 people died. Colorado’s state health department reported 17 more deaths, and that the state death toll had hit 374 -- a figure that would balloon to more than 560 as of Friday as more reports of COVID-19 victims surfaced.

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The statewide order to shut down non-essential businesses — issued a month before to the day — had taken a toll. In that month-long period, more than 231,000 people filed for unemployment, just short of the 285,000 unemployment claims filed in all of 2009 during the height of the great recession.

The Colorado stories of April 16 show how much has changed in such a short amount of time. Teachers now instruct students over screens. Doctors speak to patients through masks and face shields. Newborn babies are quarantined from sick parents.

But the journalists also chronicled how, even as Colorado stares down uncertainty, death and illness, life goes on. And in what feels like a dark hour, there are moments of hope.

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7 a.m.: Venture For Success Preparatory Learning Center, Denver

Dressed in purple scrub pants and a print top, Catherine Scott started her work day with a spray bottle of bleach solution, wiping down door handles, tables and a laptop keyboard.

Scott is not a health care worker, but a preschool teacher — often tasked with opening the child care center where she works in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood.

When children began arriving with their parents, Scott met them at the front door, thermometer in hand. After temperature checks, parents logged their child’s arrival on the laptop, and everybody washed their hands in the sink up front.

Scott had just three children in her classroom — a 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old. It was a far cry from the usual 15 she would have on a day without coronavirus.

After many child care providers closed last month, state officials recommended they stay open, with precautions, to care for the children of working parents.

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One of the biggest challenges of preschool in the coronavirus era is social distancing. Instead of the usual snuggles and hugs, Scott has switched to distance hugs, air high fives, and pats on the back. One student spontaneously jumped into her lap, then quickly realized her mistake.

“I sorry,” the girl said. “Air high five.”

—Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat

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8 a.m.: COVID-19 unit, St. Joseph Hospital, Denver

Dr. Peter Stubenrauch reviewed patients’ charts with his medical team during morning rounds.

Nearly every patient in the unit was on a ventilator, that precious piece of equipment that can be the difference between life and death during the coronavirus crisis.

The medical guidance on COVID-19 is evolving fast. Stubenrauch, a critical care pulmonologist with National Jewish Health, which staffs and manages the ICU, said doctors use the “tried and true” approaches to respiratory illness and are eyeing experimental treatments being developed. He recommended that one of his patients be added to a promising drug study. If she’s accepted, she could get the drug or a placebo the research requires. He can’t know.

Consultations with families are done by phone. Discussing life and death matters but not doing it face to face, with family members who can’t even be together with their loved one, is heartbreaking. And the uncertainty about COVID-19 means preparing families for the worst.

“You by no means have any interest in giving up on a patient, particularly someone who came into the intensive care unit relatively recently,” Stubenrauch said. But he must “also set the expectation that we’re observing a lot of patients who remain on mechanical ventilation for prolonged periods of time and can quite suddenly take turns for the worse and pass away.”

By his shift’s end, the news in the unit was brighter. There were no new admissions for the day.

—Kelley Griffin, CPR News

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11:15 a.m.: Avery Parsons Elementary School, Buena Vista

The vehicles pulled into the parking lot on the west side of the school.

Michelle Cunningham was there in a surgical mask and gloves, greeting parents and students by name and giving them thumbs-up signs and smiles in lieu of high-fives and hugs.

The school counselor has been struck by the volume of families showing up for free meals. Though nearly one-third of the school district’s roughly 1,100 students are eligible for government-subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, only about 40 children a day typically take advantage, she said. Now the district is handing out 400 meals a day.

“As counselors, we know brains work best when physiological needs are met,” Cunningham said. “Its benefits go beyond food. I’m out where I connect with families.”

In communities across the country, school buildings closed for learning remain open for meal distribution, extending a social safety net during the crisis. That holds true in Buena Vista, a tourism-dependent community set amid the majestic Collegiate Peaks.

With retailers, restaurants, and other small businesses closed, hundreds of families are out of work.

Even so, Cunningham said she is proud of how the community has rallied.

“The school board, the business owners, the community leaders, the churches, the school’s lunch ladies … Everyone is stepping up in so many ways to support each other.”

— Jan Wondra, Ark Valley Voice

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Noon: Parking lot of the El Jebel Laundromat, Eagle County

Fabiola Grajales waited for the nose swab that would tell her whether she was finally free of the coronavirus and able to be near her family again.

In one of Colorado’s COVID-19 hotspots, a coalition of Eagle County Public Health, MidValley Family Practice and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance has set up this free mobile testing site.

Grajales, 27, a medical assistant at a Glenwood Springs clinic, said she started feeling sick March 2 and tested positive for the virus March 6. Over the next week, her cough worsened and she experienced shortness of breath.

“You know when you step on dry leaves? I could hear that sound coming from my lungs.”

“You get really bad headaches,” Grajales continued. “You feel like your eyes, they’re going to pop out. I couldn’t smell or taste anything.”

Doctors at Grand River Hospital in Rifle confirmed she had pneumonia and treated her there but didn’t admit her, she said.

She self-isolated for 10 days before symptoms disappeared. But a follow-up test showed she still had coronavirus. After more rest, Grajales feels “90% better, maybe 95,” she said.

Waiting her turn for yet another test, Grajales said the knowledge and contacts she’s gained working in health care helped her acquire tests and treatment, with some effort.

“It was hard for me,” she said. “I can’t imagine how hard it would be for other people.”

—Scott Condon, The Aspen Times

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1:30 p.m.: Self-storage locker, Grand Junction

The self-storage yard was empty when Dawna Numbers arrived.

The rain had paused, so the 48-year-old moved quickly to load her clothes in plastic bags into the back of her red Kia for the long journey on a mostly empty interstate.

With no money for rent, Numbers was headed for her mother’s house on the Front Range.

Numbers has been out of work since March 25, when the coronavirus outbreak eliminated her night shift job at a fishing-line factory in Grand Junction. Like many Americans, she had tried fruitlessly to file for unemployment benefits. The state unemployment office had been slammed with more than 230,000 new claims in the last month, slowing services to a crawl.

“I’ve never just felt so alone,” she said. Maybe this crisis would bring out something better in people, she hoped. Maybe she’d have better luck in Denver.

“We just need to do the best we can and hopefully this ends soon and somehow we can go back to some kind of normal life,” she said. “Or hopefully better than it was before.”

— Andrew Kenney, CPR News

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2 p.m.: On the road from Steamboat Springs to Oak Creek

Nolan Christopher Dreher’s parents tucked him into his car seat in the back of their Toyota Highlander and drove snowy roads from Steamboat Springs to their home in Oak Creek. Nolan, cozy in a white onesie with bears on it, was two days old and on his way to meet his brothers.

Lauren Dreher was hoping she had been careful enough, that the nurses and doctors and the woman who came in her hospital room to take out the trash were not infected with the virus.

“At the end of the day you have to know that you did everything you could do,” she said. “I’m just hoping that that’s enough. I was trying so hard not to touch my face. You’re in labor and you brush your hair out of your face and wipe your brow.”

Dreher, who had a complicated second pregnancy, planned to give birth to Nolan in Denver with an at-risk pregnancy specialist. She changed her mind as she watched COVID-19 cases climb in the city. Plus, UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center isn’t nearly as busy.

“It was just kind of eerie how quiet it was,” Dreher said. Adding to that surreal feeling was the fact that “everyone you came into contact with was wearing a mask, from the security guard to the nurses and doctors.” Dreher’s delivery team wore N95 masks and face shields.

The Drehers are both furloughed. Lauren works for an orthodontist, and Christopher works at a French restaurant in Steamboat. They are trying to look at the bright side -- more time with their new baby and sons Calvin, 6, and Landon, 4.

By late afternoon all were back in their warm home with a fresh blanket of snow outside, the first time together as a family of five.

— Jennifer Brown, Colorado Sun

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5 p.m.: Fire Station 52, Brighton

Capt. Colin Brunt climbed into Brighton Fire Rescue Tower 51, a 46-foot long fire truck with a ladder.

Trailed by his colleagues in Engine 52, Brunt traveled to Bason Kramer’s house to wish the 5-year-old a happy birthday. When they arrived, the crews switched on their lights and honked their horns while a firefighter stepped out to hand the boy a certificate.

This was not a typical day for the Brighton Fire Department, but it was a welcome one.

Since COVID-19 began to spread, Brunt has worked six 48-hour rotations. Each day of every rotation, he’s responded to COVID-19 medical calls.

Before the birthday party, Brunt’s unit extinguished a car fire, helped out on a call of a tractor-trailer hanging off the side of a highway and responded to a fire alarm. Brunt took a mask and worries about exposure to the coronavirus.

“That’s our worst-case scenario that goes through all of our heads, bringing something back to our family,” said Brunt, who is married and has two daughters in kindergarten.

Birthday drive-bys — which more fire departments are doing to lift the spirits of isolated children — and other non-coronavirus calls were a nice change. “It’s a morale booster,” Brunt said.

— Liam Adams, MetroWest newspapers

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6:30 p.m.: home of Cat and Zach Garcia, Aurora

Cat Garcia had been waiting for the call from the nurses at the neonatal intensive care unit, hoping to hear good news about her baby twin boys she had yet to meet.

Three weeks earlier, she lay in St. Joseph Hospital about to undergo an emergency cesarean section. Garcia wasn’t due for another six weeks but her doctors felt like they had little choice: She had tested positive for COVID-19, had pneumonia, and was having difficulty breathing.

Bright lights filled the room. Doctors and nurses were covered from head to toe in PPE. The drugs began to take hold, and everything went dark.

When Garcia woke up, she had a breathing tube in her mouth. A nurse held up her phone to show pictures of her newborn sons, Kal and Bruce. It was the closest she was going to get to them.

Garcia’s husband, Zach, who works for the Transportation Security Administration at Denver International Airport, had begun to show symptoms of COVID-19 on March 19. Cat Garcia developed a violent cough not long after.

Released from the hospital while Kal and Bruce gained strength in the NICU, Garcia returned home. She pumped milk and unpacked baby clothes while hoping for good news.

When the call came, the news wasn’t good. The twins — both of whom have tested negative for the coronavirus — still weren’t feeding well enough. Watching them on the NICU webcam would have to be good enough for a while longer.

“We haven’t been able to hold them or see them,” Garcia said.

Three days later, the twins were sleeping in car seats on their way home, dressed in matching powder-blue pajamas and hooked up to oxygen to help them breathe.

— Adilene Guajardo, Denver 7

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11:30 p.m.: Dr. Mercedes Rincon’s home office, Aurora

For nearly three decades, Dr. Mercedes Rincon has studied a molecule so obscure and unremarkable that even her colleagues tease her about it.

The Spanish-born professor in the University of Colorado’s Department of Immunology and Microbiology was doing postdoctoral work at Yale when she stumbled upon an article about interleukin-6, or IL-6.

She became fascinated with the molecule commonly produced in inflammation, which is familiar to arthritis and cancer researchers searching for treatments.

When the coronavirus began wreaking havoc on human lungs, Rincon saw a familiar microscopic face in the mix: IL-6 is consistently present in the lungs of the most severely affected patients.

Whether IL-6 is a cause or a consequence of the coronavirus, Rincon isn’t sure. But she hypothesizes that drugs like tocilizumab, traditionally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, could possibly target IL-6 and prevent it from producing more damaging inflammatory molecules.

Early results from studies in China, as well as research in Europe and at the University of Vermont, show some promise.

“We can’t conclude anything yet,” she cautioned. “We have to be careful. We need more data.”

With the clock approaching midnight, a long day coming to a close, Rincon got to work crafting a grant proposal. She wants the University of Colorado to be at the forefront of this research.

With a little funding and a little luck, Rincon and her obscure molecule might just provide Coloradans — and the rest of the world — with a reason to hope.

— Jay Bouchard, 5280

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This story has been updated to correct the name of the hospital in Rifle to Grand River, instead of Grand View.

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This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. The Associated Press joined this historic collaboration with more than 20 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.

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