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Two more COVID-19 cases in Las Animas County; Huerfano sees one new case

by Mark Craddock

 

OUR WORLD — Las Animas/Huerfano Counties District Health Department has received confirmation that two more Las Animas County residents and one Huerfano County resident have tested positive for COVID-19.

Las Animas County now has 13 positive cases, and Huerfano County has received confirmation of its sixth case.

The Las Animas County cases include a male in his 60s and a woman in her 30s who are recovering at home. The Huerfano County case is a man in his 80s. The local health department said the man “is recovering,” but provided no details on his disposition.

The department’s public health nurse has begun a contact investigation to determine if there were any additional exposures.

As of Friday, July17, face masks are mandatory in indoor public spaces throughout Colorado for at least the next month. There are exceptions for medical and disabilities-related reasons. In announcing his executive order, Gov. Jared Polis said violators could be charged with trespass for entering a public building without a mask.

In a Tuesday press release, the district health department reminded residents “it’s important to remain vigilant in our defense against COVID-19. As it was in the beginning, the following measures remain your best and first line of defense:”

• Wash your hands thoroughly and often,

• Continue to keep 6 feet of distance between yourself and others when at all possible,

• Wear a facial covering when you are away from your home, and are unable to maintain 6 feet of distance from others.

Editor’s note: REMINDER: New Mexico has said it will levy fines of $100 on people who do not wear masks in public, and businesses which ignore the health order will receive workplace citations and have misdemeanor criminal charges filed against them.

2020 fashion statement

The face mask is becoming the hot fashion trend of the summer, as evidenced by the window display at Armida’s Boutique, 526 Main, in Walsenburg. Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with statewide case counts once again beginning to climb, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order July 17 mandating the wearing of face masks in all indoor public spaces in the state. Staff photo

Boom times for small, local meatpackers brings long delays for ranchers, consumers

As consumers abandon supermarkets to buy locally produced meat, orders are backed up through 2021

 

by Mark Craddock

OUR WORLD — Recent problems among the nation’s “Big Four” meatpackers — Cargill, JBS USA, National Beef Packing Co. and Tyson — have precipitated a boom in business for smaller, local meat-packing companies, as many consumers abandon the supermarket meat counter in favor of locally sourced and slaughtered meat, and many ranchers feeling the squeeze of low live-cattle prices, have sought to cut out the middle man.

But there has emerged an unintended by-product of this trend.

Small regional meatpackers are reporting that they are working near capacity and many are booking individual orders six months to a year ahead, with impacts to consumers, local ranchers, and potentially hunters this fall seeking to have their game dressed and packed. Local 4-H organizers, however, say they have been able to secure ample processing for their annual auctions.

“(Local meatpackers) are booked so far out that people can’t even get meat slaughtered unless they plan ahead,” said Middle Creek rancher and Huerfano County Coroner Vonnie Valdez. “I talked to Jensen’s last week. The soonest I can get in as of last week was the end of 2021. I already have my appointments booked for January and February, and next June. Unless you know of a mom-and-pop backyard shop, you can’t really process your meat.”

“We’re really busy,” Jerry Jensen, owner of Jensen’s Blue Ribbon Processing in Fowler, confirmed. “We’re booked clear out until next June.”

He said that the most his company had previously been booked out was four months in advance.

But with the recent supply problems faced by the big meatpackers, which were magnified exponentially as outbreaks of COVID-19 forced closures of plants across the country, consumers looking for other alternatives began flocking to local beef producers and smaller meatpackers like his.

“How long it lasts? I don’t know,” Jensen said. “It might just be, once the COVID problem is over, it might just go back to normal.”

High Country Meat in Raton, NM, is booked out until the third week in April, 2021, according to owner Lee Dixon. “I think it’s a lot of people wanting to know where their meat comes from,” he said. “They want a secure supply.”

 

Local 4-H auctions will proceed

Despite strict state requirements governing public events during the pandemic, 4-H organizers in Las Animas and Huerfano counties say their events will certainly look different than in years past — but they will occur.

Huerfano County 4-H Board member Cindy Jameson said that the organization has prepared a safety proposal which has been approved by local public health director Kim Gonzales. Exhibits, she said, will be dropped off by participants curbside, and will be quickly judged and returned.

The livestock auction will proceed, she said, under very tight safety protocols. Invitations have been sent to everyone who bought livestock last year, and they will be the only ones admitted. Participants will be screened for COVID-19, including temperature checks and questionnaires. There will not be a buyers’ dinner this year, she said.

The fair is slated for August 5 – 9.

Similarly, in Las Animas County, 4-H organizers have received a variance to proceed with their stripped-down fair.

“It is definitely not going to be normal,” Lori Arnhold, Las Animas County Extension Office director, said. “We have cancelled all of the public events with the exception of the cornhole tournament. In the past, livestock has been able to stay at the fairgrounds for the duration of the fair. This year, the animals and the kids will come in, show that day, and take their animals back home.”

She said the livestock auction will be live, in the fairground’s covered outdoor pavilion. The sales ring has been reconfigured and elongated to facilitate social distancing, and all buyers will be COVID-19 screened upon arrival.

The Las Animas County Fair will run from July 27 to Aug. 1.

In Colfax County, NM, a slimmed-down version of the annual fair will be held the first weekend in August.

“We plan to go forward with the livestock show and sale and our indoor 4-H exhibits,” Mike Hobbs, president Colfax County Fair Association, said.

As for the fruits of the young 4-Hers’ labors, Dixon said his firm has carved out space in the schedule for them. “We always leave space for them,” he said. “We book out the first three weeks in August just for fairs.”

Jensen’s has historically also been a go-to facility for processing animals from 4-H county fair auctions. Jerry Jensen said the firm is doing what it can to assist local fairs, but has scaled back its contracts this year because of the uncertainty of events being held in light of the pandemic.

“Right now, we’re not even booking the fairs because it’s so up in the wind,” he said. “One day they’re saying they’re going to have a fair, then not.” He said Jensen’s does have a contract with the Colorado State Fair, but he’s not necessarily convinced organizers will be able to pull off that event.

Hard times for the “Big Four”

Earlier this year, as COVID-19 swept across the nation, meatpacking plants emerged as a major source of community outbreaks, forcing plant closures from North Carolina to South Dakota, from Missouri and Iowa to Greeley, CO. In April, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force the reopening of meatpacking plants, but workplace safety concerns have continued to slow down production. The supply chain for meat products still remains compromised, and in many grocery stores, selection is spotty and prices are up.

On top of that, the Justice Department in April began an investigation into potential noncompetitive behavior in the beef packing industry.

And on June 8, 2020, a class-action lawsuit was filed against top meatpackers, accusing them of conspiring to inflate the price of beef through an industrywide scheme.

The antitrust suit, filed in Minnesota, comes on the heels of the federal investigation.

“While these investigations apparently were triggered most immediately by a spike in beef prices since the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., this spike is only one manifestation of defendants’ conspiracy,” the complaint says.

It is part of a wave of price-fixing cases involving livestock and protein — including chicken, pork, turkey, tuna, and salmon — amid calls from top Democrats to break up “big ag,” according to the Bloomberg Law newswire.

It was filed by a defunct Chicago groceries co-op in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, two days after the Justice Department charged the CEO of JBS subsidiary Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. with conspiring to fix chicken prices.

The proposed class action accuses the four meatpacking giants, which together control more than 80% of the industry, of leveraging their “gatekeeping” role “to collusively control both upstream and downstream beef pricing.”

 

Cattle prices low, as beef prices soar

Among local ranchers, cattle prices are so low that many are finding it more economical to have their animals processed locally and sell directly to consumers.

Before 2015, cattle and beef prices “predictably moved in tandem,” given that “beef is simply processed cattle,” according to the antitrust complaint.

But the meatpackers allegedly conspired starting that year to widen the “meat margin”—the spread between what they paid for cattle and what they got for beef — to “unprecedented” levels by reducing purchases and running their plants at below capacity.

“These practices created surpluses in the cattle market and shortages in the wholesale beef market,” the suit alleges.

On September 2, 2019, live cattle prices stood at 95 cents per pound, according to data collected by Business Insider. That steadily climbed to a high of $1.27 per pound on Jan. 6, 2020. But in the shadow of the novel coronavirus, prices tumbled, reaching a low of 85 cents per pound on April 20, 2020. As of July 13, the live cattle price stood at $1.03 per pound.

Between December, 2019 and June 2020, beef prices — the price charged by the big meatpackers — fluctuated between $4.55 and $5.50 per pound, according to IndexMundi, a web based commodities tacking firm.

At the consumer level, the retail price of ground chuck in Midwestern groceries was $3.76 per pound in June of 2019, $4.67 per pound in May of 2020, and $5.66 per pound in June, 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That represents an increase of 50.2% in a year — and 21% between May and June of this year. The average price of all beef steaks rose 25% over the last year, to roughly $9.30 per pound.

Luna conducting survey for its facilities master plan

courtesy Jesse Gallegos

 

SPRINGER — Luna is preparing a long-range facilities master plan that will guide future planning for facility renovations and expansions, campus infrastructure, and other physical improvements at all of its locations.  Luna is asking the community in helping the planning team by completing a short survey.

The survey is open through July 31, 2020.  Unfortunately, delays to this process based on the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed this survey into the summer and may not be ideal for our entire faculty, students and community to participate.  If you can, please share this as appropriate and encourage everyone to take a few minutes to complete this survey and provide his or her input into this important process.

Las Animas County sees 11th confirmed case of COVID-19

LAS ANIMAS COUNTY — Las Animas Huerfano Counties District Health Department reported confirmation that an 11th Las Animas County resident has tested positive for COVID-19.

The positive COVID case is a woman in her 60s who is recovering at home. The Las Animas Huerfano Counties District Health Department public health nurse has begun a contact investigation to determine if there were any additional exposures.

As cases continue to rise locally and statewide, the local health department urges citizens to “remain vigilant in our defense against COVID-19.”

The agency encourages people to continue practicing social distancing, wearing facial coverings, and frequently washing their hands.

2020 NMAA football and soccer seasons postponed

by Marty Mayfield

KRTN Multi-Media

 

NEW MEXICO — In her latest health order Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham put the axe to fall contact sports but left in question sports like volleyball, fall golf and cross country.

In conversation with Raton High Football Coach Tory Giacomo, he had the following comments about the news. “Despite COVID-19 and the surrounding events, it’s hard to fathom a fall without football. We all need to pull together to get through this year safely. Like I told the guys, we still have hope to play in the spring. We will find out more on July 15 from the NMAA. I know that their plan is to make it work to have all sports. My heart goes out to all our students and sports programs and coaches and even for this last spring and to all the seniors.”

When asked how he plans to get his players ready for a possible shortened late winter or spring football season he added. “As far as the players conditioning we have been working on their speed for the majority of the summer and if we can continue, we have two more weeks left of this cycle and then they will have two weeks off. From there I think it’s just a matter of getting together with Dr. Montoya (the new high school principal) and the other coaches to make a plan on which direction we go to next and that will depend on what we can do as far as practice and conditioning.”

The NMAA has a special meeting planned to discuss options for the upcoming school year, Giacomo had these thoughts, but as he mentions everything is subject tot change. “As far as football in the spring I really do not know but we will find out soon. There is talk of having football in February with a shortened season followed by having spring sports with a full season which would run through June. I have confidence that the NMAA will make it work. Right now things change daily so you never what is going happen.”

Any way you look at it, the small schools in New Mexico will likely see problems as many players play several sports, unlike the bigger schools where there are enough students to specialize and only play one sport. The other question is, where basketball will fit into the mix, and how coaches will share those multi sport players? It is also likely that big tourneys that draw the crowds such as the TSJC tourney or Cowbell, that normally play the first couple of weeks in December, will be strictly crowd limited if played at all.

Trinidad City Council work session: adjustment to landfill fees, in-person meetings, and DOLA grant cycle discussed

by Bill Knowles

 

TRINIDAD — The Trinidad City Council took a look at adjusting landfill fees, restarting in-person meetings, and how to best go after a couple of grants from DOLA during the August grant cycle, during a work session last Monday evening.

The discussion on landfill fees comes about following last year’s voter-approved amendment changing the city charter allowing the landfill to become a city enterprise operation much the same way as the electric service, gas service, and water and sewage are.

The council discussed fee adjustments for the landfill, which saw an increase of trees and shrubbery being dropped off at the landfill without any cost to those who dropped of the plant debris. City manager Mike Valentine said that for the past two-and-a-half years the material has been dropped off for free and the city needs to start charging for it.

A shredder had been purchased by the city to mulch the material, but it has not been used. The idea was to shred the plant matter and compost it then hand the fertilizer back to residents of Trinidad. That hasn’t been done.

The city looked at charging $10 per bag for small drop offs and $31 a ton for trucks bringing in yard waste. However, no charges have been added to the list of items that can be placed in the landfill.

The use of the shredder will need a second person to help operate the machine while the other person feeds it. This would increase the number of employees at the landfill from three to four.

 

In-person city council meetings

Recognizing that holding in-person city council meetings is the ideal, Mayor Phil Rico also acknowledged that, with the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country, it would not be feasible at this time.

Other city council members also saw in-person meetings as the ideal but recognized it as something that is unworkable at the moment. While using the online meeting app “Go To Meeting” was a good work around, meeting online does come with problems, such as the city council meeting last week when council member Karen Griego’s connection was dropped during a vote. By the time she was reconnected, the vote was tallied at 6-0 rather than 7-0 with Griego being solicited for her vote.

Rather than using plexiglass to separate council members, council member Eli DeBono suggested that the form remain the same. That’s because the council chamber is almost too small even for the city council.

Kim Gonzales, Las Animas County and Huerfano County District Public Health Director, said she understood the frustration of the city council but recommended that the council continue as is. “I understand the frustrations of not meeting in person. Going forward I would strongly discourage going in person. I would like to see if elected officials can set a good example going forward. We’ve boomeranged back to March with a lack of personal protective equipment and lack of testing. We need the governments to be proactive in the community,” Gonzales said.

 

DOLA grant cycle discussion

August first is the first grant round of the cycle and the city is seeking two grants from the Department of Local Affairs.

The first grant being sought is a $200,000 grant from the State Historic Fund for work to be done at the Fox Theater West, as requested by the Fox Group.

The second is another $200,000 grant for a Fisher’s Peak study looking at the impacts of the park on infrastructure. The city is seeking help from the county for this grant. The city will chase the historic grant and the county will work on the Fisher’s Peak grant, which drew a positive consensus from the city council.

The August 1 deadline is one city council meeting away, so both entities have a lot of conversation to go through before they can vote either way on the funding. The next round of DOLA grants comes up in December.

The meeting was adjourned at 6:06 p.m.

“A Culture of Unknowns”-Superintendent Moore – BOE approves Family Choice Plan: full time or no time options

by Jaye Sudar

 

WALSENBURG — To open or not to open, and if so how? These questions dominated the board meeting. The district had three plans. Surveys had gone out, staff meetings have been held, and it was now the board’s chance to provide input. Superintendent Mike Moore stated that this has been one of the hardest issues in his entire career. How best to provide education, be fair to staff, students, and families, and follow state and health department regulations.

One option was to start school online and continue full time in person education after Labor Day.

Splitting the student body into two groups and having each group’s attendance on alternating days or alternating weeks were the other options proposed.

Full time online school was also on the table. All of the options had health and financial complications.

After much debate, it was decided to select the option identified by staff as their top choice, dubbed by Director Joel Shults as the Family Choice plan. This option has school going back in session full time as of August 13 as scheduled, with families having the choice between:

• sending their children to school full time in person, or,

• choosing full online/distance learning enrollment for their children.

Each family will also have the ability to change their enrollment preference on a quarterly basis, meaning families have the flexibility throughout the year to decide if their children will be in person or online in any given quarter of the year.

Students will all receive new ChromeBooks to do their work, and all classrooms will be equipped with cameras for instruction and 65” tvs for monitoring students at home and for lesson projections. Transportation and food services will be normal with safety precautions taken through temperature scans and social distancing.

Moore explained that online schooling will be much streamlined for this school year, there will be only one platform, Schoology, used for RE-1’s online learning, and that all online students will have the ability to attend real-time online classes. For more info on Schoology, go to https://www.schoology.com/

This will make it much easier for families to assist their online students, rather than the way online schooling was conducted last spring when COVID forced the closure of the schools and the rushed transition to online learning resulted in several different learning platforms being used in RE-1.

The public must be aware that this decision is wholly dependent on whether the Huerfano/Las Animas Health Department will ok the plan. The decision passed 6 to 1 with Director Ruth Orr voting no.

 

Peakview Assignment

At the last meeting, the vote to approve Santiago Bobian as 5th grade teacher for Peakview was tabled until July 13. In accordance with his contract, Bobian had decided to resign as Dean of Students and return to the classroom. The board voted 4-3 to not accept Bobian’s assignment for the position. Directors Sporleder-Orr, Orr, and Shults voted to approve the assignment. The district will find an elementary assignment for Bobian.

 

Sunshine Law

President Sporleder-Orr, after discussions with the district’s lawyer, counseled the board on the proper protocol for email exchanges. Standard operating procedure is to avoid “Reply All” in an email discussion. While a discussion or email between two board members is not an issue, three or more board members is a quorum, and hence a board meeting. Director Kayla Andreatta reminded board members this applies to text messages as well. Plans are underway to have board training with the district’s lawyer.

Policy

Two items of policy were discussed by the board. The first being GBEB-R Staff Conduct and Professional Boundaries with Students. The second policy was EGAEA-R2 Regulation of Social Media Use. Both policies had been brought forth as means to delineate issues that might arise due to increased online education, and the changes brought about by COVID-19.

In addition, the procedures for handling money at events was discussed. While not a policy, the district protocol is gone over once a year during teacher inservice training at the beginning of the school year. The difficulties lie in finding people willing to handle money, be responsible for deposits, and turning in funds in a timely manner. Moore said this is a perennial issue.

 

Band Retreat

JMHS band director Ben Pollack asked the board for permission to hold a leadership retreat from July 27 to August 10. The multi-day activity is designed to build camaraderie between the students through a series of activities. The students will have six days of activities and one overnight. The board approved the retreat.

HEA Addendum

The board approved the addition of an addendum to the HEA agreement which was inadvertently left off the original documentation. The addendum clarifies the district and union positions on paid sick leave and health issues related to the COVID-19 emergency. This allows for any teacher exposed to or infected with COVID-19 to isolate and heal without worries concerning sick days, or any penalties due to use of sick leave.

 

BEST Grant: Ventilation and COVID needs

While the district did not receive a BEST grant this year, the board decided to follow the model of other districts, and try again. Many districts go for a ballot initiative with a clause in it stating it will go into effect only if a BEST grant is secured. Accordingly, the district will go for a ballot initiative this election cycle to replace John Mall High School, and will reapply for a BEST grant in February 2021. As Sporleder-Orr stated, the need for a new high school is even more urgent, with the extremely poor ventilation at the high school, and the necessity of providing adequate air circulation for the safety of students and staff as the pandemic continues.

 

South Central BOCES

The board approved the BOCES agreement. BOCES provides Special Education, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychology services to RE-1. Moore and Andreatta discussed the July 7 BOCES meeting where disagreements between the CFO and Executive director have led to the need for a independent third party mediation. Superintendents will also be discussing a resolution to the problems South Central BOCES has been having.

 

Other Business

The school board approved the transfer of Ana Choin from Gardner to JMHS as secretary, and the hire of Jamie Odum as the Assistant Principal at Peakview.

‘Wear a damn mask’

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, Gov. Polis makes a pitch for responsibility but stops short of a statewide mandate

 

by Mark Craddock

 

COLORADO — It was a clearly frustrated Gov. Jared Polis who took to the dais last Thursday for his weekly press conference. “If I haven’t been clear, I’m telling you again to wear a mask,” he said. “Wear a damn mask.”

Colorado’s coronavirus numbers remain relatively low this summer but are clearly moving in the wrong direction. New COVID-19 cases in Colorado were on the rise for 13 of the last 14 days. Surrounding cities and states have, in recent weeks, seen astronomical spikes in cases.

Most of those regions are prime markets for summer tourists flocking to Colorado. In fact, over the July 4 weekend, Polis said some 50,000 to 100,000 tourists visited the state from Texas and Arizona alone.

Computer models prepared by the Colorado School of Public Health cites public mask wearing as one of the key indicators in predicting the spread of COVID-19. Absent other variables, if mask wearing and social distancing fall below 65%, models show COVID-19 cases exceeding available hospital capacity by the year’s end.

And experts say the number of Coloradans following the state’s mask-wearing recommendations is slipping.

Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas are among neighboring Western states which have imposed orders making it mandatory to wear masks in public. When asked why Colorado is not following suit, Polis replied, “If you’re somehow waiting to wear a mask till the governor tells you to, I hope you’ve heard that I’m telling you to.”

“Greater mask wearing is worth trillions of dollars to the economy, as studied by Goldman Sachs. So, if for some reason it’s not enough to want to save your own life and for some reason its not enough to want to save the lives of members of your household or people you care about, mask wearing is also a business issue and an economic issue.”

 

Putting the Onus on Local Jurisdictions

On March 25, at the peak of Colorado’s pandemic, Polis issued his “Stay at Home” executive order. A month later, “Stay at Home” was replaced by “Safer at Home,” which begat “Safer at Home in the Vast Great Outdoors,” which segued into “Protect Our Neighbors,” each order gradually relaxing the COVID-19 restrictions to facilitate economic and social recovery.

In each incarnation, local health departments were free to enact measures more strict than the state’s orders. But local jurisdictions with low COVID-19 incidence could also apply to the state for variances to more quickly open. Huerfano and Las Animas Counties received two such variances in June.

Last week, Polis touted local agencies that had enacted mandatory mask orders of their own, saying that only local acceptance and enforcement will make a mandate stick.

“For a mask ordinance to work, it has to have local buy-in,” Polis said. “We want mask policies that work.”

He said nearly 60% of Colorado jurisdictions had enacted such measures independent of the state. As of July 13, the state reported a dozen counties and 13 cities had enacted mask mandates.

In the wake of “Safer at Home,” The Las Animas-Huerfano Counties Public Health Department originally issued orders that went over and above the state’s orders, continuing a mandate on masks and strict quarantine rules for those traveling to the area from COVID-19 “hot spots.”

In the wake of a May 12 demonstration on the steps of the Huerfano County Courthouse, commissioners from both Huerfano and Las Animas Counties, along with local public health and area hospitals, applied for two variances from state requirements, essentially allowing some businesses and organizations to reopen sooner and at slightly higher capacities. The local orders now basically conform to the latest state orders, including recommendations — not mandates — regarding wearing masks in public.

Statewide order not ruled out

When pressed, Polis said he would not rule out a statewide mask order.

“I haven’t ruled out anything,” Polis said. “I want to do whatever leads to more mask wearing in our state.”

Polis said that Colorado needs to “maintain our status as a positive outlier” health and economy-wise among states but also reiterated that a national strategy was badly needed and currently lacking.

“That’s not something that I as your governor can deliver. We have to live with the president and the administration we have rather than the administration that we may want,” Polis said.

The governor said that Colorado still has quite a way to go in the marathon against the virus and said it was time to continue to be smart and safe – and said that mask-wearing would be key to that, stressing what other state and local public health officials have said.

“This is not about politics or ideology, it’s about science and health,” Polis said. “Wearing a mask is the smartest and best thing you can do, along with staying six feet apart from others.”

 

A Look at the Numbers

Colorado’s COVID-19 peak came April 25, when the three-day average of new cases reached 725. Case counts have steadily fallen since that time, reaching a low of 128 cases on June 15. But since then, the numbers have gradually climbed, though not nearly at the rate seen in neighboring states which opened their economies on a much more aggressive timeline.

The three-day average of cases stood at 468 cases on July 10. The R-naught, the number that indicates how many people get infected from a single person, has also risen above one for the first time in weeks.

An R-naught above one indicates an increase in community spread.

At a Friday press conference, members of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presented the latest numbers and reiterated Polis’ messaging on mask wearing, saying “the increase is likely due to Coloradans’ change in behavior.”

Sarah Tuneberg, the COVID-19 Innovation Response Team leader, encouraged making “mask wearing the culture of Colorado.”

“The research is really clear that mandating something through policy is not nearly as effective as creating social change from the ground up,” she said. “And the more we do it as a community and the more we collaborate on it, the more effective it will be.”

Cancer responsible for more deaths in Huerfano County in 2019 than heart disease

by E.E.Mullens

 

WALSENBURG — Huerfano County Coroner Vonnie Valdez made a thorough presentation of her office’s activities in 2019 Tuesday morning to the county commissioners noting the predominate cause of natural deaths in the county last year was cancer, with 25 recorded cases.

Valdez’s report said the number of cancer deaths increased over the 2018 statistic of 18 and said the types of cancer included, but was not limited to; bile duct, cervical, breast, bone, blood, prostate, and pancreatic. She reported cardiac deaths decreased from 27 cases in 2018 to 21 cases last year. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was the primary cause of death in respiratory illnesses her report said. Valdez noted in her report that, “Many people who die from a natural cause do not necessarily have only one disease but have several co-morbidities. We have taken the primary cause of death that was assigned by the attending physician or coroner as the main cause in our analysis, with the understanding that there may have been an additional disease an individual had.”

The 2019 report said there were nine accidental deaths, and of these, four were from falls which caused traumatic brain injury. The average age of those who suffered this fate was 84.5 years. There were also three accidental drug overdoses in 2019, two females and one male with the mean age of 59.3 years. There was one accidental firearm death of a man whose pistol discharged in his pocket while sitting down during a hike above La Veta. Valdez said the bullet struck the femoral artery of the man’s thigh and he died from massive blood loss.

She reported on one fatal traffic accident in which a two-year old child was run over by a vehicle on his family’s property. “This was a tragic and unfortunate accident,” Valdez said.

There were no homicides or cause undetermined deaths in Huerfano County in 2019 according to the report. There were two gunshot suicides in the county last year. One case was that of a 19-year old male and the other involving a 40-year old male.

“Although drugs, both illicit and prescription, have played a role in an increasing number of deaths over the years across the county, for the 2019 death year, it has been a very small number,” Valdez said. According to the report, only .04% of all direct deaths involved drugs. Valdez noted in seven deaths last year drugs were found in the decedent’s system, but in only three cases did it play a role. There were a total of 102 reportable deaths in Huerfano County in 2019, with 14 requiring autopsies.

Native skull returned to tribe

An interesting, but not all that unusual, coroner call was made in October 2019 at the Bar H Ranch in Gardner where hunters discovered a human skull. The coroner’s office took possession of the skull and contacted the Colorado Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and with guidance from Mark Tobias of that office the skull was sent to Dr. Diance France, a forensic anthropologist. Her examination determined it to be a very old Native American skull. Tobias assisted with contacting the Mountain Utes Historic Preservation office and the skull was turned over to them. “In a private ceremony, with several religious leaders from different local area tribes present, the skull was buried again at the Bar H Ranch,” Valdez said. Valdez said some of the information received in this case indicated the skull belonged to a male Native American who was estimated to have been between 30 and 50 years old and died at least 100 years ago. “Even though it is hard to determine which tribe the skull belonged to, due to its age, it was given to a current local tribe. This is why this particular skill was turned over to the Mountain Utes,” Valdez said. She said investigation by the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office and the Coroner’s Office at the site did not result in the discovery of any other bones or artifacts.

 

Ongoing concern

Valdez said in her 2019 report that due to the Spring Fire of 2018, concerns remain regarding flooding potential in our county and its cemeteries. “We began the process of evaluating cemeteries to determine the risks of coffins being disturbed by flooding. There is continued efforts being made to evaluate high risk cemeteries in the county that could be affected by anticipated flooding because of the burn scar,” She said.

Valdez has been Huerfano County Coroner since her election in November 2014. She has been a Registered Nurse for over 36 years and holds a BSN and Master’s Degree in Organizational Management. She is a certified death investigator and has completed a basic crime scene class taught by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Deputy coroners for Huerfano County are Marc Biggins, Norma Mower, Dave Mower, and Joel Shults. Abigail Manus, an El Paso County resident and former death investigator for the coroner’s office there for seven years, is the medico-legal death investigator consultant utilized by Huerfano County Coroner’s office.

 

Huerfano County Coroner Vonnie Valdez, pictured in 2019 making her annual (2018) report to the board of county commissioners. This week, Valdez again made her presentation in person to the board, although she and other meeting attendees at the courthouse wore protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. WJ file photo by E.E. Mullens
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