With a doctorate in chemistry and a prior job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Cyndi Wells knew sooner than most the threat that COVID-19 posed for the country. As early as December 2019, as reports began surfacing of a virus in the Wuhan area in China, “I kind of knew the storm was coming,” she recalls.
Her pet supply store, which Wells opened in 2005 in Los Alamos County, New Mexico, while she still worked at the lab, would be considered an essential service, so she began prepping for keeping it open during a pandemic. “We adopted masks quickly here,” she says. “Some of the bigger challenges were getting the supplies in. We got our hand sanitizer from a distillery that had pivoted to making hand sanitizer.”
The store, Pet Pangaea, pivoted to online sales and curbside pickup, as well as FaceTime sessions for those who wanted to see what was inside the shop. “In some ways, I felt like it was our duty to remain open and serve the community,” Wells says.
That adaptability, combined with a community steeped in the value of science as the home of the atomic bomb and other pathbreaking research, proved essential to Los Alamos as it, like the rest of the world, grappled with the unknown of the novel coronavirus. It also points to the spirit and foundation that helped the county repeat this year as No. 1 in U.S. News’ ranking of America’s Healthiest Communities. The annual analysis assessed nearly 3,000 counties across 84 metrics in areas that form a community’s overall health and well-being, ranging from the economy and population health to public safety, infrastructure and housing
Much of the data used in the 2021 analysis dates to before the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage communities around the world. But in Los Alamos’ case – the county is the first to repeat as No. 1 in the four-year history of the Healthiest Communities rankings – the analysis underscores the strength of the social determinants of health present in the community, and to its subsequent resilience. In the 10 broad categories in which counties are assessed, Los Alamos achieved its highest scores in housing and population health.
On individual metrics – and in the context of risk factors for COVID-19 – the county has boasted a relatively low prevalence of both obesity and diabetes. Its median household income of more than $121,000 in recent years was among the highest in the country, approximately three-fourths of county residents had an associate’s degree or higher, and health insurance coverage has been high.
Also, paychecks that continued coming in 2020 as employees of the lab – a community anchor best known for its role in developing the atomic bomb – switched to mostly remote work provided support in times of uncertainty.
“We have a community that believes in science,” says Ryn Hermann, director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce. “The lab did a lot of work helping with vaccines.”
As of June 8, the county of approximately 19,000 people had seen just 532 COVID-19 cases and six deaths, according to Beverley Simpson, the county’s emergency management commander. A U.S. News examination found Los Alamos had the 17th-lowest case rate in the country as of the end of May among the counties and county equivalents assessed in the Healthiest Communities analysis.
Dr. Jeffrey Sauer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Silvia Salas at a vaccination clinic in Los Alamos County, New Mexico, on June 16. (Adria Malcolm for USN&WR)
As soon as vaccines became available late last year, the county swung into action, led by Simpson and others. More than two dozen vaccine clinics were held, including many mass efforts at the Los Alamos High School gym. State and local officials, assisted by local drug store Nambe Drugs, ramped up from administering 86 doses daily in mid-December to 1,327 in mid-May.
“It really was a community effort,” says Donna Casados, the county’s social services manager. “It took a large amount of volunteers – we actually had to turn them away.”
Simpson says residents’ “health, knowledge, education, compliance to public health orders and training” are behind the county’s vaccination success. By early June, 80% of the county’s eligible residents 16 and older had been fully vaccinated.
“That is why Los Alamos County has excelled during the COVID pandemic,” Simpson says, “and I would like to say thank you to our community for their overwhelming support.”
For some, the pandemic provided an opportunity to create a sense of normal during a time of panic. At the Pig+Fig Cafe in the county community of White Rock, owner and chef Laura Crucet decided what people really needed besides the food was a daily hug. Her recipe? “A culinary hug in a box” in the form of a $12 box of upscale comfort food, be it BLTs or fried chicken or some other dish. “Every day was a different lunch box,” she says. “It just took over like wildfire. We were selling over a hundred a day.”
“Most of our customers were still getting a paycheck,” Crucet says. But “everybody went crazy in their own way. We were trying to provide a sense of normalcy.”
Crucet was able to maintain her full-time staff and – despite social distancing, masks and other restrictions – she says “it felt like we never closed the dining room. It was the same coffee, the same croissants.”
Holidays brought their own special meals, like ham and beef tenderloin for Easter. “We sold out of these the first day we released them,” Crucet says.
Similar meals were created for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Crucet expanded her patio and, she says, many of the changes brought on by the pandemic are here to stay. Her customers, she says, “were beyond generous. That’s the other reason I built out the patio – it was a giveback to the community.”
Patrons dine at the Pig + Fig Cafe in White Rock, New Mexico – part of Los Alamos County – on June 17.(Adria Malcolm for USN&WR)
Giving back is also a mission of Gadgets, a store run by the Bradbury Science Museum Association that features merchandise bearing the logo of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Proceeds from store sales go to supporting STEM education in northern New Mexico. When the science museum, which is tied to the lab, closed due to COVID-19, Jennifer Cline, the museum association’s president, found space in a small business center where she continued to operate the store, albeit virtually.
“I think overall sales are more on the order of 50% or so” of what they were pre-pandemic, Cline says, but the pandemic has enabled her to market lab merchandise more widely. With the lab hiring a lot of new staff, the store offers a way for some of those new workers to share their pride in working at the institution. Once the museum reopens, Cline says the store will “go back to it but will also continue the online sales.”
Economically, the county fared pretty well. The unemployment rate, which had been 3.2% in February 2020, spiked to a high of 6.1% in July but as of April was 3%. The lab pays the county a gross receipts tax on its revenue, and is actually in the midst of a multiyear expansion and hiring program.
“The impact on the business community, however, was quite different,” says Patrick Sullivan, executive director of the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corp. “There were a handful of businesses, approximately six or so, that closed because of the pandemic.”
Views of Los Alamos County
“More than anything, the impact we picked up most was the emotional and stress impact on our business community of the fear of the unknown,” he adds.
Based on data prior to the pandemic, Los Alamos achieved a score of 85 out of 100 points in the mental health subcategory of the Healthiest Communities analysis, which includes metrics such as a county’s rate of deaths from suicide, alcohol or drugs, and its share of adults who’ve experienced frequent mental distress.
Still, Casados, the social services manager, says calls to mental health and substance abuse hotlines increased in the county. The pandemic “took a toll on the behavioral health aspect, particularly on our elderly and youth population, the social isolation.”
Maura Taylor, executive director of Self Help, a local nonprofit that provides emergency financial aid and other assistance, says her organization saw more demand for its services but also more support. “Some months in 2020, we had twice the call volume of 2019,” she says. “And the community really wanted to help, so we did a lot of fundraising last year and got a lot of support.”
“It was inspiring, how much people gave to organizations like ours,” Taylor adds. “It’s been great because we’ve been able to increase our aid, which has been needed. So many people in our area have been impacted by the economic consequences of the pandemic.”
Taylor says moratoriums on things like evictions and utility disconnections helped for a while, but not everyone was covered. “Now that utility disconnections are resuming, people are extremely behind on their bills and are having trouble catching up,” she says.
Statues of J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the laboratory at Los Alamos during World War II and the development of the atomic bomb, and Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, are seen near the Fuller Lodge Art Center in Los Alamos, New Mexico, on June 17. (Adria Malcolm for USN&WR)
Taylor says her organization has helped people apply for various state and federal relief programs. “And the people we serve often fall through the cracks of other aid like the stimulus payment and unemployment income,” she says, “so we’re helping make sure they get those.”
Self Help also serves people in Rio Arriba County, which performed poorly in the Healthiest Communities analysis, as well as residents of Taos and Santa Fe counties, which both fell in the top half of the roughly 3,000 communities assessed. Taylor says about 18% of the families her organization assisted in 2020 were from Los Alamos County, where individuals, faith communities and businesses also accounted for much of the increased support.
Given its unique stature in American history and high degree of connection to the federal government and its money, Los Alamos is unique among counties in terms of its economy and public health. But the factors that served it well before the pandemic – including access to health care, low unemployment and a deep sense of community and resilience – also proved a recipe for success during it.