I received an email from a reader following a story that ran earlier this week about our low vaccination rates and the impact to our businesses. He was visiting his mother in Pueblo, which has a higher vaccination rate than Grand Junction. He made the comment that anytime Grand Junction is doing worse than Pueblo, we should take notice. The comment made me chuckle and, while I apologize to my friends and peers in Pueblo, here in Mesa County, we spent a decade climbing up and out of the ‘worst places’ list with high poverty and crime rates, low wages, and incredible job and population decline.
This week was a week of contradictions. The City of Grand Junction was voted by ColoradoBiz magazine to be one of the Best Places to Move/Open a Business. What an honor to be recognized as a community for our business-friendly policies and focus! What timing, as it feels like we’re finally getting back to normal, having managed the pandemic better than most communities. The Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce named Mesa County Health Department Director, Jeff Kuhr, Citizen of the Year at their Annual Banquet last week and he most certainly deserves the honor. Our Five Star Variance Program, along with common sense leadership across the Valley, kept our business and schools open, which in turn kept the economy moving along when most of the country was shut down and businesses were closing at unprecedented rates. We were the anomaly. And halfway through 2021, we’re going stronger than anybody expected, with lines out the doors to restaurants, help wanted signs in every window, and sales tax revenues exceeding 2019 numbers. CMU’s Dr. Nathan Perry released his Q2 Economic Report that shows our economy continues to diversify and our growth is steady and positive.
But then I got a call from a GM of a large employer asking what could be done to get the vaccination rate up. After getting through the worst of the pandemic, he’s suddenly faced with new outbreaks among his unvaccinated employees. They aren’t catching it at work where they are still going through all the protocols, but at home where they aren’t. Mandatory quarantines cost his business twice – first in the pay that’s required to the employee while they recover, and second in the lost man-hours in production or increased cost of covering for the quarantined employee. The cost is such that they are considering an expansion someplace where there’s a higher vaccine rate and therefore a lower cost to doing business. On top of that problem – and despite the 6.8% unemployment rate – he has a number of jobs he can’t fill. That actually is a problem all over the country; hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare – all are having trouble filling positions with qualified candidates.
Throughout the past year and a half, we’ve been dealt problems we could never imagine we’d have to deal with. Trying to figure out how to get our county vaccination rate up over 50% is one of those problems, and it hits at a particularly sensitive time as we’re all starting to feel like things are normal again. They’re not. COVID hospital beds are filling up and our positive infection rate would have fully shut us down in 2020. It’s appalling that there are so many places in the world where people don’t have access to vaccines, while over 60% of our population refuses to get it when it’s readily available. I believe there is no better example of a ‘First World Problem’. I had a meeting with the health department to figure out different messaging that will get through to some portion of the population – at least the workforce-aged group that are costing our businesses so much money. Ultimately, if we can’t convince nurses working in the COVID ward to get the vaccine, it’s hard to imagine that any sort of narrative about the cost to businesses and taxpayers will do the trick. But we’ll try.
Unfortunately, even without a rise in our vaccination rate, this problem will work itself out in the next few months on its own. The unvaccinated will eventually get COVID-19. The vast majority of them will recover. A few will not. And finally, enough will have either received the vaccine or had COVID that we reach some version of herd immunity. A few good large-scale events will speed up the process. Getting there will cost us. It will cost our businesses who have struggled to navigate the past year. And it will cost taxpayers. And that’s just frustrating. Because the whole thing is preventable.
Robin Brown, GJEP Executive Director