Colorado Mayor Dealing With Rise In COVID-19: 'This Is Going To Be A Lost Year'

Oct 21, 2020
Originally published on October 21, 2020 8:04 pm

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the hardest hit areas were big cities, from Seattle to New York. But now, eight months after the crisis hit the U.S, new cases are surging in some small towns and rural areas around the country.

Colorado is among more than a dozen states that set a seven-day record for positive COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

One place seeing a significant spike is Pueblo, a former steel town with a population of just over 100,000 that is nearly 50% Hispanic.

Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar says that the recent increase in cases could likely be due to a combination of people relaxing during the summer, schools and the local university going back in session, and more extended family gatherings.

But ultimately, he says, "we haven't been able to put our fingers on exactly what it is."

"As we learn more and more about the virus, it's obvious that we've got to take protective measures, even if we're among friends or extended family members if we're going to prevent the spread," Gradisar says.

In excepts from his interview on NPR's All Things Considered, Gradisar discusses managing the coronavirus in his town, contact tracing and adapting new traditions.


Interview Highlights

On whether people who test positive are disclosing close contacts

There's been some reluctance, I think. The reports I get from the health department is that some people don't answer the phone when the health department calls and there's been some reluctance for people to share their information. We're hoping that we'll get some new people trained up and can change that a little bit so that we're able to quickly identify who's been exposed and infected by the virus and get them to quarantine and stay out of circulation.

On whether contact tracers have necessary language skills and cultural competence

They do. And we will be making an effort in this next round of hiring these contact tracers to make sure that they have those bilingual skills so that they can reach as many Puebloans as possible.

On how Pueblo's challenges differ from those of a city like Denver

Pueblo is not really a tourist town. So to that extent, at least we haven't been as severely affected as other parts of Colorado have. I've been quite surprised at our sales tax numbers and the fact that they've remained pretty constant. We had some months where they went down, but not nearly as much as we predicted. So in terms of sales tax collections, which is a reflection of economic activity, Pueblo has done pretty well so far.

On the upcoming holidays and family gatherings

This year has to be different. Don't do it. It's too risky. And the fact that it's important that we not get extended families together for Thanksgiving this year. If we do, chances are that some of the people will be spending Christmas on a ventilator in the ICU unit because we don't have this virus under control at this point. There's not an effective vaccine. So be careful.

Usually on Christmas Eve, I've got 40 or 50 people at my house. We have Santa Claus come for the grandkids and the great-grandkids, but this year's going to be different. It's not the end of the world. This is sort of going to be a lost year, but we're going to get through it. And hopefully by this time, next year, things will be much, much better in terms of our response to the pandemic.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Another surge of the coronavirus is washing across the country. Colorado is one of many states that have seen record-setting caseloads over the last seven days. Shortly before the pandemic broke out, I visited Pueblo, Colo., population just over 100,000. It's a former steel town defined by waves of immigrants. Seventy-one-year-old Democrat Nick Gradisar is the mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICK GRADISAR: At one time at the mill, there were 40 different languages that were spoken at the mill, 24 foreign-language newspapers in Pueblo. So Pueblo has that kind of proud history. And all those people who came from all over the world built our neighborhoods, our churches, those kind of things. And while Pueblo has changed, those neighborhoods and those identities still remain.

SHAPIRO: Today coronavirus caseloads are lower in Pueblo than they are in the state's major population centers. But that gap is closing, so we got back in touch with Mayor Gradisar today. And I asked him, why?

GRADISAR: Well, I think people relaxed a little bit over the summertime. Schools are back in session. The university is back in session now. We suspect that a lot of it is coming from extended family gatherings and those kind of things. You know, as we learn more and more about the virus, it's obvious that we've got to take protective measures, even if we're among friends or extended family members, if we're going to prevent the spread.

SHAPIRO: Now, I understand you're hiring contact tracers to try to track the spread of the disease. When I was in Pueblo, people described it as a place where people really prize their independence. So are folks who test positive open to sharing their contacts with government employees?

GRADISAR: Well, there's been some reluctance, I think. The report I get from the health department is that, you know, some people don't answer the phone when the health department calls. And there's been some reluctance for people to share their information. We're hoping that we'll get some new people trained up and can change that a little bit so that we're able to quickly identify who's been exposed and infected by the virus and get them to quarantine and stay out of circulation.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Pueblo is also a diverse place, 50% Hispanic. And so do your teams have the cultural competence they need to reach out to specific communities that might not speak English or might not trust authorities?

GRADISAR: They do. And we will be making an effort in this next round of hiring of these contact tracers to make sure that they have those bilingual skills so that they can reach as many Puebloans as possible.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of challenges does a city the size of Pueblo face dealing with this pandemic that might be different from a city like Denver or New York?

GRADISAR: Pueblo is not really a tourist town. So to that extent at least, we haven't been as severely affected as other parts of Colorado have. I've been quite surprised at, you know, our sales tax numbers and the fact that they've remained pretty constant. We had some months where they went down but not nearly as much as we predicted.

SHAPIRO: It's so interesting to me that you say Pueblo's tax revenues and economy has not been as hard-hit as some other parts of the country because I know when I was there in February, it felt like a place that was struggling. You know, unemployment was a little bit higher than the rest of the country. And so what is it like now when the rest of the country is in this big economic recession and you're not hit as hard?

GRADISAR: Well, it's pleasant (laughter). I mean, the federal aid and the fact that payments were sent directly to individual Puebloans - I think they spent that money on taxable items in the city of Pueblo. And so we're deriving the benefit of that at this point. But, you know, we're not through the pandemic yet. So...

SHAPIRO: I mean, you say federal aid was a big help. But that federal aid has run out, and Congress hasn't passed another round.

GRADISAR: It has run out. The Congress hasn't passed another round. But we haven't seen a big dip since March or April in our sales tax revenues, so most Puebloans - we've got our bars and restaurants opened again, which are big sales tax generators. And what we're concerned about, obviously, if we have to shut those down - that our sales tax will be adversely affected.

SHAPIRO: So we're coming up on the holidays, when people want to gather with their families indoors, a lot of people around a table. What's your message to folks in your city?

GRADISAR: This year has to be different. Don't do it. It's too risky - and the fact that it's important that we not get extended families together for Thanksgiving this year. If we do, chances are that, you know, some of the people will be spending Christmas on a ventilator in an ICU unit because we don't have this virus under control at this point. There's not an effective vaccine, so be careful. You know, usually, on Christmas Eve, I've got 40 or 50 people at my house. We have Santa Claus come for the grandkids and the great-grandkids. But this year's going to be different. You know, we're going to get through it. And hopefully, by this time next year, things will be much, much better in terms of our response to the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: That's Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar.

Good to talk to you again. Thank you.

GRADISAR: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.