Absorbing and assessing how Park County residents have been impacted by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a long-term proposition that would probably require extensive scientific research and the advantages of hindsight.

But even so, there is already mounting evidence to indicate that the global health pandemic and the sweeping social distancing measures it has spawned have been profoundly impactful – especially in terms of the social and psychological toll it has exacted upon all segments of our population.

Most local experts agree that it is not necessarily the fear of contracting the virus that has been so detrimental to our individual and collective psyche. Instead, it has been the social distancing restrictions and public health mandates that have limited our personal freedom and spawned ongoing uncertainties, irregularities and inconveniences that have permeated virtually every facet of our lives.

Restrictions due to public health concerns were first initiated in March, escalated in April, and continue today with standard social distancing measures and mandatory face coverings still very much a part of our everyday routines.

Shelter-in-place orders, bans on social gatherings, the cancellation of live sports and entertainment, and the closure of schools, churches, movie theaters, sports facilities, gyms, and restaurants and shopping centers were just some of the mandated public restrictions imposed by state and local governmental entities since the arrival of the coronavirus.

Each of these restrictions have been implemented for the stated purpose of slowing the spread of the fast-moving virus, and statistical evidence suggests that social distancing measures have in fact been effective.

Even so, the disease has claimed the lives of more than more than 220,000 Americans. A staggering 8.1 million cases have been reported in the United States, and that number continues to swell daily at an alarming pace. Unfortunately, the United States has endured disproportionate per capita-based numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in comparison to like nations around the globe.

Research presented by USAFacts.org, which hails itself as a non-partisan fact-finding organization, determined that there would have been as many as 35 million cases reported in the Unites States had shelter-in-place orders and other social distancing measures not been adopted.

Every aspect of mandated social distancing measures that have been implemented will likely be examined, re-examined and debated for years to come. But regardless of conclusions drawn from those future exercises, and regardless of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of social distancing as it has been carried out throughout the pandemic, the unarguable reality is that restrictions to our personal liberties, customs and chosen ways of life have dealt a crushing blow to our individual and collective psyche.  

In addition to the loss of life itself, the quality of our lives has been adversely affected in an all-encompassing fashion that would have been impossible to predict or imagine just a short time ago. Social distancing practices are clearly the most reliable way to stop the transmission of the coronavirus and to keep Americans as healthy as possible.

Those same practices, however, have also prompted a well-documented social and emotional crisis that continues to evolve as the days pass, and the virus lingers.

Challenges for senior citizens

Senior citizens have likely felt the burdensome weight of COVID-19 more than any other segment of our society. In addition to the emotional strain of knowing they are among the most at-risk citizens in our population, many senior citizens have also suffered emotionally due to the loss of social interaction and in-person visitation opportunities with friends and loved ones.

Health experts maintain that adhering to social distancing measures is vitally important for senior citizens. But on the other hand, those same experts also acknowledge that regular social interaction is critical to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of seniors.

Ironically, the same social distancing measures that have likely saved the lives of countless seniors can also be severely detrimental to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of those the measures were originally designed to protect.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) provides a wealth of information in the fields of medicine and biological sciences, and recently published an article which stated the following:

“Mental health problems are common in older adults with the prevalent depressive symptoms. The rapid transmission of COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, higher mortality rate, self-isolation, social distancing and quarantine could exacerbate the risk of mental health problems. Mental health problems (new or existing) could worsen and further impair cognitive and emotional function.”

The article also asserted that many seniors lack the technical savvy or modern amenities to maintain social interaction during periods of self-isolation, social distancing or quarantine.

“Unlike young segment of population efficiently equipped with the modern contraptions and internet services, most of the older adults have limited access and cognizance of internet and smart phones,” the article stated.

It is conceivable that seniors residing in the sparsely populated confines of Park County might be even more susceptible to the pitfalls of social isolation, especially those without transportation or those unable to utilize various forms of public transportation.

Challenges for youth/schools

Another portion of our local population that has struggled mightily with mandated social distancing measures has been students ages 6-18. The absence of social interaction with teachers, coaches, counselors, administrators and peers, as well as the prolonged interruption of sports and other extra-curricular activities such as graduation ceremonies, proms and pep rallies, has been a bitter pill to swallow for our local youth.

To identify negative implications of having no in-person school activities for a prolonged period of time, as students in Park County did from mid-March until the first day of the fall semester, an accounting of the benefits of attending school in person might be beneficial.

The publically stated goal for Platte Canyon School District RE-1, before the fall semester began, was to have “… as many students on campus as possible, as safely as possible, starting with the first day of the new semester.” As a means of supporting the thought processes behind that stated goal, the district released the following statement provided by the American Academy of Pediatricians with regards to school attendance:

“Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits.”

The district added: “All policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school.”

A small minority of students within the district did choose distance learning rather than attending classes in person for the current semester. But for the most part, PCSD RE-1 has had the vast majority of its students on campus for traditional, in-person learning since their return from the summer break.

Fortunately, unlike some other school districts in the Denver-metro area and beyond, there have been no major outbreaks of COVID-19 within PCSD RE-1 since students returned to campus. Those positive results have seemingly served to justify the district’s decision to have as many students in the classroom as possible, as safely as possible.

The district’s decision-makers obviously had the collective wisdom to choose a bold but viable plan with which to continue the business of educating students during the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, and the successful execution of that plan has apparently produced the best of all possible results for students and stakeholders alike.

But even with the number of new coronavirus cases diminishing throughout the county, and within Park County schools, the social and emotional impacts of the epidemic upon students have been dramatic.

Seviah Egbert, a senior at Platte Canyon High School, is just one amongst countless students nationwide who have had their high school experience drastically altered by COVID-19.

Egbert, who serves as a team captain on the softball field for the Lady Huskies and also excels in 4-H-related activities with award-winning livestock at the Park County Fair each summer, described how COVID-19 has impacted her both as a student, and on a more personal level.

“I’m a senior and I have missed out on a lot of things that would usually happen, including my baseball season, my junior prom, being with friends and my senior homecoming,” Egbert said. “Missing these events has been really hard emotionally, and I think it has added a lot of stress on me and my family. It’s been stressful because I have always been very social, and having to stay home all summer and having to social distance from those I love has really made me go a little crazy.”

Egbert continued.

“The hardest thing for me was losing my grandfather in April because I wasn’t able to go see him at all. I know it was really hard for him, too because he was alone. We had to wait until August to hold his funeral, and even then we had to really limit who could come due to social distancing. In that moment, all you want is to be able to hug all your family. Unfortunately that wasn’t really possible under the circumstances. It was still a lovely service, though, and I’m grateful for that.”

Egbert said she was also thankful that event organizers opted to still hold the livestock show at the County Fair last summer, despite strictly enforced social distancing measures at the event. The 2020 version of the fair was scaled down considerably compared to previous years, due to COVID-19 concerns.

Cindy Shane, who serves as a counselor to students grades 8-12 for the Park County School District RE-2 in Fairplay, says emotional stress related to COVID-19 comes in many forms for students.

“The true impact of COVID-19 on our youth is a complex issue and one that many of us may not totally understand until the virus is completely visible in our rearview mirror,” Shane said. “What I do know is that its impact isn’t a one-size-fits-all. For some youth, it has been an underlying stressor; something that has kept them from traveling, hanging out with friends, an inconvenience and a second thought. For others, it has been utterly life-changing: the loss of a loved-one, a hospitalized family member, exponential financial stress and hardship, increased conflict at home, and total isolation.”

Shane continued.

“Kids and adults alike need to feel connected. Authentic, positive connections with others are a basic human need.  COVID-19 has inhibited this big-time for our youth. Being able to maintain some type of safe, calm, and somewhat, normal experience where youth can still connect with one another is critical for their mental health during this time.”

Challenges for families

Families in all sectors of Park County have exhibited classic symptoms of emotional and psychological distress in recent months, as interpersonal and domestic relationships are often strained by new COVID-19-related challenges.

Due to school closures and the modification of class times and events at schools, most students have experienced considerable changes to their schedules. Some students attend in-person classes on a limited basis, and are required to attend classes on line from home for selected days during the workweek.

Those modified schedules for students have prompted transportation dilemmas for many working parents. Those issues are only enhanced by the fact that some school districts have had to modify or curtail bus services during the pandemic.

Stay-at-home orders and instances in which self-quarantine is advised have also created trying circumstances for families, according to local experts.

Sgt. David Leffler of the Park County Sheriff’s Office, who also serves the department’s domestic specialist, says some families simply aren’t accustomed to being at home together on a regular basis.

But many local families have had to do just that since the coronavirus first made its appearance in Park County about seven months ago, and the results are sometimes messy.

“Social skills are critical to domestic and interpersonal relationships, and a lot of family members lack the necessary social skills to coexist in close proximity to one another day after day,” Leffler said.

Leffler said he had responded to a call during the period of stay at home orders in which a mom and her daughter were locked in an emotionally charged verbal confrontation.

“I got there and mother and daughter were fighting,” Leffler recalled. “It was a large family. I asked what the problem was and they both indicated that they had been ‘stuck together in the house,’ and that they had never been stuck together that way. I suggested they take walks, and they did and I have not been back since. Sometimes people just need more personal space, especially when they are forced to be together under stay-at-home orders.”

On a more serious note, Leffler added that the department has been seeing more violent domestic situations in recent months, and “the frequency of such incidents is increasing all the time.”

Disturbing statistics, reports from local experts

An Oct. 2 story in The Flume entitled “Domestic violence calls spike in Park County,” revealed that domestic violence calls had swelled to 192 for the 2020 calendar year, and that the department had responded to just 132 domestic violence calls at that same date in 2019.

Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw declined to speculate as to why the number of domestic violence calls had increased so dramatically, but noted they picked up dramatically during the mid-to-late summer months, about three months into the viral epidemic and the social distancing measures that ensued.

Statistics provided by the Park County Sheriff’s Office also indicate that violations of protection orders were up by 100 percent over 2019, and that instances of strangulation in domestic settings had spiked from just five in 2019, to 25 in 2020.

On an otherwise celebratory Oct. 5 evening in which he was officially sworn in as the new Police Chief for the Town of Fairplay, Bo Schlunsen presented the board of trustees with a rather grim report regarding a significant increase in mental health-related calls his department had received in recent weeks.

“We have had an uptick lately in mental health-related calls and incidents,” Schlunsen said. “We see so many mental health situations occurring, and reoccurring, and that’s really unfortunate. We have also seen an increase in suicides.”

Park County Coroner David Kintz, Jr., in an Oct. 16 interview with The Flume, shared several striking observations regarding COVID-19-related issues .

Kintz confirmed that suicides had been prevalent as of late, but he was particularly candid regarding the direct correlation he had discovered between recent instances of suicide and COVID-19-related challenges.

“We have seen suicides recently that are directly linked to the COVID-19 fallout,” Kintz said. “It’s not a fear of actually contracting COVID-19, but depression associated with mandates and restrictions on peoples’ lives. The public psyche is definitely being impacted, and the mental effects have been devastating.”  

Kintz added that as a first responder, he witnesses COVID-19-related social and emotional stress in a very personal, identifiable way.

“When I read what people say in suicide notes, I see the struggles people are having with COVID-19-related issues. “The public sees some of those struggles, and is aware that they are occurring. But as a first responder, effects of the COVID-19 fallout are really tangible.”

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