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Few communities in the US confronted the arrival of the novel coronavirus better prepared than Los Alamos County.

The New Mexico community had a well-educated, largely affluent population that enjoyed good access to health care. The large presence of one of the country’s 17 national laboratories provided the community with an appreciation of the values ​​of scientific research. And the residents partook of the natural environment by hiking in the nearby canyons and mountains.

Yet like many communities across the nation, Los Alamos did not escape the effects of COVID-19, both economically and in terms of public health. And now, with subvariants of the virus spreading, the county is enduring the same sense of fatigue, deja vu and desire to put the pandemic behind it as the rest of the country.

“People here, just like everywhere, are tired,” says Cyndi Wells, owner of the Los Alamos pet supply store Pet Pangaea.

As the pandemic progressed, officials marshaled resources to keep the community up and running as best as possible, holding more than two dozen vaccine clinics, including mass efforts at the local high school gym. State and local officials ramped up testing, going from less than 100 tests a day to more than 1,000 in a matter of weeks.
Overall, the percentage of Los Alamos County residents considered fully vaccinated stood at approximately 85% as of mid-June – a mark second in the state behind McKinley County to the west, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data on the state’s vaccine dashboard lists an even higher rate at roughly 96%.

The local response to the first booster shots was also “pretty good,” though “we’ve definitely plateaued,” says Linda Matteson, deputy county manager. The county’s rate of fully vaccinated people who’d received a first booster or additional vaccine dose stood at 65% as of June 14 – well above the national mark of 47% and among the top 2% of county rates in the country, if not that far removed from the 60% threshold Los Alamos hit at the end of January.

Still, coronavirus cases have ticked up again in the county recently, with a seven-day average of 28 cases per day as of June 6. That average was down to 16 by June 10, according to data posted by the New Mexico Department of Health , but was well above the single-digit averages seen in the county only about a month earlier.

And businesses that suffered lockdowns, staff shortages and supply chain disruptions in the early days of the pandemic in 2020 are still seeing some of the same issues more than two years later.

“I think people are surprised” that the virus is still a threat and that the economic damage it caused has left long-lasting marks, Wells says. “I didn’t anticipate there would be issues this far out.”

For Wells, finding the supplies she needs remains a challenge: She gets pet food and supply orders that are only 30% to 40% filled. Her business volumes are comparable to 2021 levels, though with a caveat: “It appears that our sales have gone up,” she says, “but with inflation, not really.”

America’s Healthiest Community in Pictures

Still, while local businesses may have struggled adapting to the realities of a coronavirus world, the county unemployment rate recently stood at 2%, less than half of what it was in the middle of 2020. And two years on, officials wonder if things are returning to normal – or, at least, what might constitute normal in a post-pandemic world.

“Last year, we had a partial summer concert series,” says Randall Ryti, chairman of the Los Alamos County Council. “This year we’re having a full summer concert series. I wouldn’t say it is fully back to normal, but certainly closer to where we were in 2019.”

Officials also have learned a lot from the pandemic, especially when it comes to ways to operate differently as a community. They’ve embraced telework and hybrid public meetings that are part Zoom, part in-person.

“At the lab, a certain percentage of the workforce is not going to come back” to the office, says Matteson, speaking of Los Alamos National Laboratory, a seminal county institution best known for its role in the development of the atomic bomb. “At the county, we have a telework policy which was unheard of prior to the pandemic.”

Those changes have helped fuel others, in both mindset and action. When people stopped driving and started working from home, for example, “it brought an understanding of how (traffic and pollution) affected our environment,” says Angelica Gurule, environmental services manager at the county’s Public Works Department. “It brought to life different solutions,” such as a switch to paperless documents in county offices.
Another small gesture, but one that speaks to the community’s mindset amid the pandemic: In 2021, the county leveraged grant funding to provide composting bins to residents, and some 300 were given out. As recently as last month, residents were still requesting them, with 150 more given out in May.

Plans to increase broadband internet service throughout the community – notably, a Healthiest Communities metric in which the county already performs well – also increased in importance as a result of the pandemic. The county is now working aggressively on the project, planning to utilize funds made available by the infrastructure initiative that was one of President Joe Biden’s key legislative priorities.

In terms of civic engagement, a citizen-spurred task force has helped lead a charge to improve the county’s adoption of climate change mitigation policies and practices. The county also is moving on from using a coal-fired power plant in nearby San Juan County that may be retired or converted to new technology, and Los Alamos officials are pursuing a small-scale nuclear reactor for some of the area’s future energy needs.

“The first module should be online by 2029, with commercial operation by 2030,” says Philo Shelton III, the county’s utilities manager. As for the coal plant, of which the county owns a small share, Shelton says, “It’s near the end of its useful life, and the emissions cost to operate it is not competitive with other sources like wind and solar.”

Looking back, locals say Los Alamos County fared pretty well, all things considered, with the first coronavirus outbreak and then the roller coaster of delta, omicron and more recent subvariants. But there are scars.

“I think mental health has deteriorated,” says pet shop owner Wells.

Ryti, the council chair, sums up the state of things circa 2022 – more than two years since a virus from China ended life in Los Alamos County and around the world.

“It might not ever be the same as it was before,” he says.


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