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Differing COVID-19 Mitigation Approaches Cause Tensions In Colorado Counties

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's been a feud in northern Colorado. The pandemic is the source. As hospitals in one community fill up with COVID patients, residents there point fingers at the county next door. Here's Rae Ellen Bichell with the story.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Weld County has lots of sugar beets, cattle, oil and gas wells, and according to County Commissioner Scott James, Western spirit, too.

SCOTT JAMES: And I think it is a Western thing to want to do the right thing not because we were told, but because it's the right thing to do.

BICHELL: In normal times, embracing Western spirit isn't a problem. But as COVID cases climbed, cities next door worried. Was Weld about to overflow their hospitals with avoidable cases? In a meeting in early December, the city council members of Longmont, just across the county line, had had enough. Here are council members Polly Christensen, Susie Hidalgo-Fahring and Mayor Brian Bagley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POLLY CHRISTENSEN: It is wrong for people to expect us to bear the burden of what they've been irresponsible enough to let loose.

SUSIE HIDALGO-FAHRING: They're the reason why I can't be in classroom in front of my kids. I'm done with that. Everybody needs to be a good neighbor.

BRIAN BAGLEY: If a neighbor is bringing mud into the house, taking our shoes off is not going to make a difference.

BICHELL: The conflict flared over a hospital bed tally. At one point, Weld County claimed things were fine. It had plenty of intensive care beds available - 43 of them - when, in fact, it only had three. It turns out Weld County was counting the beds in its hospitals and the beds in places like Longmont. Scott James, the Weld County commissioner, says, of course they counted other hospitals. That's how the health care system works. Counties don't have walls around them.

JAMES: To use a crudity, there's no nonpeeing section in the pool. Everybody's going to get a little on 'em, and that's what's going on right now with COVID.

BICHELL: Longmont's mayor, Brian Bagley.

BAGLEY: Their statement is, our hospitals are full. But don't worry, we're just going to use yours.

BICHELL: So he said...

BAGLEY: For 48 hours, I trolled Weld County.

BICHELL: He asked the city council to consider restricting Weld County residents' ability to receive care at Longmont hospitals. Bagley said he knew it was never going to come to fruition. After all, it was probably illegal. But he wanted to prove a point.

BAGLEY: I've had it with these turkeys. If they're going to be irresponsible, fine. Let me propose a question. If there is only one ICU bed left, and there are two grandparents there - one from Weld, one from Boulder - who should get it?

BICHELL: Bagley's City Council shrugged off what he said about withholding medical treatment, but they did consider telling Weld to set up medical tents to deal with its own overflow ICU patients. In the end, they just asked them to publicly encourage their residents to wear masks and practice social distancing. Weld County didn't respond. Patty Limerick, a historian at the University of Colorado Boulder, says the virus inflames long-standing Western strife between urban and rural communities.

PATTY LIMERICK: That's pretty easy. You don't have to sit for a really long time as a Western historian thinking, wonder where that came from.

BICHELL: In the '90s, Limerick toured several states performing a mock divorce trial between the rural and urban West. She played Urbana Asphalt West, married to Sandy Greenhills West. Is that conflict still relevant?

LIMERICK: Oh, mercy.

BICHELL: That would be a hard yes. Limerick and her colleagues are reviving the play now, and they're adding COVID-19 to the script. I'm Rae Ellen Bishell in Colorado.

SIMON: That report is from our partner, Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.