Colorado’s public health experts have become the target of threats and protests. Lawmakers are trying to change that.

San Juan Basin Public Health employees were ahead of the curve when COVID-19 arrived. They had a plan for how to respond in the event of a communicable disease. One thing they were missing: what to do if Executive Director Liane Jollon became the target of threats and protests.

“This grew in scale and in scope beyond what any of us could be prepared for,” Jollon said of the coronavirus, both the spread and the rapidly changing public health guidelines and mandates she had to issue.

So when a group of 20 protesters showed up outside Jollon’s home in Durango while she was on a weekly call with policymakers about the latest COVID-19 data, she was alarmed. One man standing less than 10 feet from her house called on her to “end the lockdown” and yelled “bad person alert” when she came to the window.

“I get that this pandemic has become really politicized and I get that it’s become really polarized, but I was really surprised that this is being directed to me as an individual in my home,” she said.

Jollon is among hundreds of government health directors across the U.S. who have become the public face of the fight against COVID-19 and the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus. In an effort to insulate public health experts from politics — and promote public health decisions that are driven by expertise and not political pressures — Colorado lawmakers are planning to introduce two bills in the 2021 session, which restarts this week.

One would allow public health officials to remove their private information from publicly accessible state databases, and another would prevent county commissioners from serving on county boards of health.

Targets of protests

Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and pediatrician, is sponsoring legislation that would let non-elected public health officials redact personal information like their names, personal email addresses and phone numbers from state records published online. It could also include voter registration and property records.

Under the proposed bill, if a person makes any of that information public (also known as doxxing) after it’s been removed, they could face a misdemeanor charge. At least one instance of doxxing happened in Parker, where in December, a GOP leader posted the home addresses of public health employees in a Facebook group, writing, “if they want a war, we can give them that but it is time for a revolution.”

Caraveo believes it’s OK “to disagree with people and to make a personal choice about how you’re going to live your life,” but it’s another story when people are impeding on public health officials’ jobs and threatening them.

Nineteen public health directors from 54 agencies in the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials have either left their positions or plan to depart within the next couple of months because of the pandemic. And health directors across the United States have cited burnout or politics for leaving their jobs, while others have clashed with their elected leaders and were fired. Caraveo said in one county, a public health employee’s dog was poisoned.

“It came, I think, as a tremendous surprise to us and really has added a whole layer of complexity to how do we do what we need to do, which is save lives, and keep the community together through these very contentious times,” Jollon said.

Public health measures have always involved a level of politics and a debate about individual choice and safety, she noted, but the pandemic required quick action, so people didn’t have much time to get used to changes. Plus, it’s lasted longer than other public health crises like wildfires or winter storms.

Dr. Mark Johnson had been the public health director for Jefferson County for 30 years and was planning to retire when COVID-19 began to spread. The county hadn’t hired a new director yet, so he stayed on.

It was a difficult 2020, Johnson said, as he fielded constant phone calls and messages, some with “thinly veiled threats” against him — “we’re watching you,” “we know where you live,” “you better watch your back.” Many times, he said, the department was just implementing state orders. It became particularly intense when the agency took Bandimere Speedway to court for violating health orders last summer and sued the business in the fall.

He got rid of his personal social media accounts, his family encouraged him to find different routes to get to work each day, and police even stationed a car in front of his home for a couple of weeks. Johnson’s daughter’s family is living with him and his wife, and he said “it’s concerning to have my 5-year-old granddaughter playing out in the front yard with a police car sitting there and threats on my life and my home.”

Every pandemic is political to some degree because of its effects on people’s lives and the economy, Johnson acknowledged, but said “never in my wildest dreams” did he expect then-President Donald Trump to treat it as though it was a hoax, fueling some of the pushback.

“It was 20% or so that were just the ones who are causing all the trouble,” he said, “and they are much more vocal than the 80% who are following the rules.”

Stripping politicians from public health

Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat, said the idea for the bill to remove politicians from public health boards came from a friend at a backyard hangout in the fall. The friend, Lee Thielen, is a former longtime deputy director of the state health department and served on Larimer County’s public health board for a decade.

“We knew, but what we really saw right in our face with COVID, is that public health needs to be to a certain extent protected against political whims,” Thielen told The Post.

Commissioners serve as local public health board members in 26 of Colorado’s 64 counties — disproportionately, in smaller and rural areas. And county commissioners across the state and political spectrum oppose Kipp’s proposal, and told her so on a recent call.

“I had no idea it was going to be this controversial,” Kipp said. But she’s forging ahead anyway.

“The further away you get public health policy from politics, the better off your outcomes,” she said.

There’s research to back that up, said Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at The Colorado School of Public Health. National research indicates that counties with independent public health boards end up with at least 10% more health services for citizens, on average.

“There’s pretty solid evidence that there are benefits to having an independent governing board for local public health agencies,” Mays said.

County commissioners can’t always devote the time — never mind the expertise — to public health that independent board members can, according to Jeanne Nicholson, the former Democratic state senator and ex-Gilpin County commissioner. In the latter role, she also served on the public health board.

“I did feel like there were things that we needed to be doing in public health that we weren’t doing as much as we could because we had other things on our plate,” Nicholson said.

She’s spent her career among politicians and said the opposition from county commissioners can be explained simply: They don’t want to give up power.

“That is a huge, huge roadblock. It is the roadblock, no question,” she said.

Several commissioners interviewed for this story rejected that assertion.

“My main opposition to this bill is that it is painting with a very broad brush what I believe is a very specific and narrow problem,” Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said.

The narrow problem, as she defines it, is conservative counties with commissioners who haven’t strictly followed public health guidance during the pandemic, or have pushed the state to relax regulations meant to protect people from infection and death.

Lawrence and other commissioners said they’re uncomfortable with the fact that this bill is coming from two urban lawmakers — Kipp and her co-lead, fellow Fort Collins Democrat Sen. Joann Ginal — given that rural counties would be most affected. About a third of Colorado counties have fewer than 10,000 residents, and some commissioners in smaller counties are skeptical they could even seat a board of qualified people who could volunteer their time.

Gini Pingenot of Colorado Counties Inc., an advocacy group representing 61 counties, said another primary concern is that the bill would remove public health from the purview of commissioners, despite its inextricable link to other key policy areas.

“County commissioners, their job is to balance a broad spectrum of community impacts,” she said. “They make land use decisions, and public health decisions are connected to that. They oversee the jails, run landfills — go down the list and you’ll see a tie with overall public health goals.”

And then you have to come back to the idea of politics — and whether it’s even possible to shield a public health board or health officials from it. Even under Kipp’s bill, commissioners would still be able to appoint public health board members.

Teller County commissioners fired executive director Jacqueline Revello late last month. She had worked for the county’s health department for 11 years, the last four as director, and disagreed with the commissioners, who also serve as the health board. She thinks that’s the reason for her firing.

The commissioners deny that, with County Commissioner Erik Stone saying it had “zero to do with politics, zero to do with medical advice,” and was about job performance.

“I’ve lost all respect for these commissioners and the county leadership because their agendas are clear and they’re not (disease) prevention,” Revello said.

And in Chaffee County, public health officials “have been doxxed, stalked and they’ve had their property vandalized,” said Greg Felt, chair of the board of county commissioners and the county public health board.

“That’s our deal,” he said. “We have to deal with it. But I can’t imagine a volunteer board dealing with that. … At least (politicians) have developed thick skin.”

Kipp’s bill wouldn’t go into effect until July 2022, by which point everyone hopes the pandemic will have ended — and the threats against public health officials along with it. But the bill’s supporters say it’s an important policy discussion with or without COVID-19.

“Remember the tobacco fights? You had the political people who didn’t want to tell people they couldn’t smoke in restaurants,” Thielen said. “And you see it in much more specific examples through the years. It might be a landfill issue, or a restaurant that isn’t living up to safety standards but might be owned by the brother-in-law of a county commissioner.”

The bill faces a difficult road to passage, in large part because approving such a policy would require lawmakers to cross the county commissioners with whom they work closely.

Said Felt, “Every legislator I’ve spoken to, when I’ve talked to them about it, they say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll kill it.’”

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