Dr. Rachel LaCount grasped a metal hoop at a playground and spun in circles with her 7-year-old son, turning the distant mesas of the Colorado National Monument into a red-tinged blur.
LaCount has lived in Grand Junction, Colo., a city of 64,000, nearly her whole life. As a hospital pathologist, she knows better than most that her hometown has become one of the nation's top breeding grounds for the delta variant of COVID-19.
"The delta variant's super scary," LaCount said.
That highly transmissible variant, first detected in India, is now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States. Colorado is among the top states with the highest proportion of the delta variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mesa County has the most delta variant cases of any county in Colorado, state health officials report, making the area a hot spot within a hot spot. A CDC team and the state's epidemiologist traveled to Grand Junction to investigate how and why cases of the variant were moving so quickly in Mesa County.
At her hospital, LaCount has put in orders for more rapid COVID tests as the caseload has grown. She's seen the intensive care unit start filling up with COVID patients, so that hospital officials are placing two in a room against normal practices.
Despite these alarming signs, it appears many in Mesa County have let down their guard. The rate of eligible residents fully vaccinated has stalled at about 42%. LaCount has noticed that few people wear masks anymore at the grocery store. Thousands of people recently flocked to Mack, 20 miles from Grand Junction, to attend the Country Jam music festival, which could accelerate the variant's spread to the concertgoers' hometowns.
"We're making national news for our COVID variant and the CDC is here investigating, but we have a huge festival where people aren't masking," said LaCount. "Are we going to get herd immunity over here just because everyone's going to get it? I mean, that's probably going to happen at some point, but at what cost?"
LaCount's worries aren't necessarily for herself or her spouse — they are both vaccinated — but for their son, who can't be vaccinated because he is under 12. She is uneasy about sending him to school in the fall for fear of exposure to the variant. She is reluctant to take him to birthday parties this summer knowing there's a good likelihood he'll be teased for wearing a mask.
A few yards away from LaCount and her son on the playground, a man fished in a still pond with his 10-month-old daughter in a backpack. Garrett Whiting, who works in construction, said he believes COVID is still being "blown out of proportion," especially by the news media.
"They got everybody scared really, really fast," said Whiting, slowly reeling in a sparkly blue lure from the water. "There's no reason to stop living your life just because you're scared of something."
Whiting tested positive for COVID about three months earlier. He said he doesn't plan to get vaccinated, nor does his wife. As for the baby on his back, he said he's not sure whether they'll have her vaccinated when regulators approve the shot for young children.
Warnings from around the world
The delta variant is one of four "variants of concern" circulating in the U.S., according to the CDC, because the delta strain spreads more easily, might be more resistant to treatment and might be better at infecting vaccinated people than other variants.
The delta variant has raised alarms around the world. Parts of Australia have locked down again after health officials said the variant leapfrogged its way from an American aircrew to a birthday party where it infected all unvaccinated guests, and after it also is reported to have jumped between shoppers in a "scarily fleeting" moment in which two people walked past each other in a mall.
Israel reissued an indoor mask requirement after a spate of new cases linked to schoolchildren. A leading health official there said about a third of the 125 people who were infected were vaccinated, and most of the new infections were delta variant.
A rise in delta variant cases delayed the United Kingdom's planned reopening in June. But public health officials have concluded after studying about 14,000 cases of the delta variant in that country that full vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 96% effective against hospitalization. Studies around the world have made similar findings. There is also evidence the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the variant.
Los Angeles County recently recommended that residents resume wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, over concern about the delta variant. The World Health Organization is also urging vaccinated people to wear masks, though the CDC hasn't changed its guidelines allowing vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks.
A delta surge hits the unvaccinated
The variant arrived in Mesa County this spring, when it accounted for just 1% of all cases nationwide, says Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health.
"We were winding down just like everyone else. We were down to less than five cases a day. I think we had about two people hospitalized at one point," Kuhr says. "We felt as if we were out of the woods."
He even signed off on Country Jam, which bills itself as the state's "biggest country music party."
But in early May, the delta variant appeared in a burst, with five cases among adults working for the school district.
"It started to hit the children, those that were not of the age to be vaccinated," Kuhr says. "That was telling me that, you know, wearing masks in school was not providing the protection with this new variant that it had previously."
The county then started to see breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated elderly residents in long-term care facilities. The hospitals began to fill once more. Nine vaccinated people died, seven of them since the delta variant's arrival, though it's still unclear whether the variant is to blame. All were at least 75 years old, and seven lived in long-term care facilities. Now, Kuhr estimates, "above 90%" of cases in the county are delta variant.
The county is seeing the same trend as the state: The vast majority of people testing positive for COVID, and people being hospitalized with it, are unvaccinated. "It's a superspreader strain if there ever was one," Eric Topol with the Scripps Research Institution told Scientific American. But he said people fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna shots "should not worry at all." There is less information about the protection offered by Johnson & Johnson's vaccine.
Festival going in a hotspot
Mesa County health officials considered canceling the music festival, but "it was really too late," Kuhr says. After the announcement that the festival was on, about 23,000 people bought tickets.
Officials weighed banning alcohol or trying to get attendees a Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine in the weeks leading up to the festival. In the end, they settled on messaging: signs warning people online and at the venue that the area was a COVID hot spot.
According to CDC guidance, outdoor events were low risk. A sporting event at the end of May in Grand Junction that filled a baseball stadium had resulted in only one known case, which made Kuhr optimistic.
"We put messaging on Country Jam's website, and then in their social media pages, saying, you know, 'Mesa County's a hot spot. Be prepared,'" Kuhr says.
A stormy Friday dampened concert attendance at Country Jam. But on the last day of the festival, the sun was out and throngs of cowboy boot-clad concertgoers stepped around prairie dog burrows and kicked up gray-yellow dust on the path to the venue entrance.
Many reveled in being able to attend a summertime event like an outdoor festival, taking it as another sign that the pandemic was waning.
"COVID is over in Colorado," said Ryan Barkley, a college student from Durango who was playing beer pong in an inflatable pool at his campsite outside the gates.
That day, 39 people in the county were hospitalized with COVID, and a CDC investigative team had arrived just four days earlier.
Inside the gates, an open field was filled with stages, concession stands, and vendors selling cowboy hats, coffee mugs and hunting clothes — and crowds of people. Chelsea Sondgeroth and her 5-year-old daughter took in the scene.
"It's just nice to see people's faces again," said Sondgeroth, who lives in Grand Junction and previously had COVID. She described it as one of the mildest illnesses she's ever had, though her senses of taste and smell have not returned to normal. Watermelon tastes rotten to her, beer tasted like Windex for a while, and her daughter said Sondgeroth can't smell certain flowers anymore.
Sondgeroth said she's holding off on getting vaccinated until more research comes out.
Waiting in line at the daiquiri stand, Alicia Nix was one of the few people in sight wearing a mask. "I've gotten people that say, you know, 'That stuff is over. Get over yourself and take that off,'" said Nix, who is vaccinated. "It isn't over."
Amid the music, beer and dancing, a bus turned into a mobile vaccine clinic was empty. A nurse on duty played Jenga with an Army National Guard soldier. Just six people of the thousands attending were vaccinated on the bus.
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink," Nix said from behind her blue surgical mask.