Public health is not the polarizing boogeyman it has been made out to be, argues Liane Jollon.
Still, it is in the rough wake of a division between counties over politicized public health disagreements that San Juan Basin Public Health is dissolving after 75 years. And Jollon, who headed the agency for nearly a decade, is stepping away as well. Her last day at the agency was Thursday.
As the quasi-governmental public health agency for Archuleta and La Plata counties, SJBPH is responsible for a broad array of services and programs, such as environmental health, combating the opioid overdose epidemic, restaurant inspections, tracking infectious diseases and vaccinations.
Most people care about their own health and that of their immediate community, Jollon said. But the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted something the former director says she already knew: Communication is the most powerful tool a public health agency has.
Jollon makes that emphasis on clear communication evident even in casual conversation, reflecting on her 13 years at SJBPH on the eve of her departure.
Assiduous and analytic in both her charge to lead the agency through an unprecedented pandemic and her reflection of the pandemic, Jollon holds in one hand the utter exhaustion of the last three years, and a persevering excitement for public health in the other.
She begins a job as the executive director of the Health District of Northern Larimer County in Fort Collins on July 1.
Sitting in a barren office days before her departure from SJBPH, Jollon was cogent but guarded in her assessment of the shift in her professional life.
The work still captivates her attention, she said, and the new frontier is exciting. But the move to a new community, where the faces of the public she services are not intimately familiar, is still bruising.
“Every time, when we’re doing hard things within our four walls to improve the community health, the anchor is that when I leave my work and leave my building, I run into really visceral reminders of why we’re doing the work that we’re doing,” Jollon said. “I run into partners and mentors that I feel like I owe it to, to do a good job all the time.”
Many of the challenges Jollon encountered in her tenure at SJBPH will follow her to Fort Collins. She knows, for example, that funding challenges are not unique to Southwest Colorado, nor Colorado, but are a national problem. Just three cents of every dollar spent in the health industry in the United States – a $4.3 trillion industry – is spent on public health.
“Public health is really the place where we can connect the dots and figure out ways to increase community health and increase everybody’s opportunity for their best health,” she said. “But three cents on the dollar is not cutting it to create a discipline that really works for people.”
The shortcomings became “glaring” in spring 2020, when messaging around COVID-19 disintegrated and the only certainty was a crippling lack of information.
In March of that year, Jollon had SJBPH staff in overdrive mode organizing the department’s response.
She likened making public health decisions in the information vacuum of the moment to dancing on a high-wire without a net.
On April 1, the department was among the first in the nation to issue a face covering advisory – beating the state of Colorado to the punch by two days.
“We took a tremendous risk,” she said of the decision to do so. “ … But we had our moral compass telling us that we could not wait if we wanted to build the best response we could for this community.”
Although the department floundered at times, as did every health agency nationwide, Jollon credits years of networking and development at SJBPH for the agency’s successes during the last three years.
The 2015 Gold King Mine spill opened her eyes to the critical role of public health in emergency response. The exercise in developing clear, effective communication for a largely uninformed public brought to light the value of client-centered care.
It was lessons from Gold King that Jollon says the agency used to address a crisis with teen suicide a few years later, and COVID-19 just after that.
The level of lateral communication that grew to be a central part of the agency’s functioning, especially during the days of online meetings, meant that staff members developed intimate methods of communication with one another.
With SJBPH’s dissolution imminent – the agency will dissolve effective Jan. 1 – Jollon says she hopes those staff members will continue to apply their honed skills for the benefit of the community, at the health departments in Archuleta and La Plata counties, or otherwise.
“What we’re hoping is that as the two counties develop their local public health agencies going forward, they retain that practice of drawing from a wide variety of disciplines, because your health is never affected by just one thing,” Jollon said.
SJBPH’s days are numbered, but Jollon avoids lamenting its demise. She put her departure and the dissolution from which it stems in rational terms.
“It is sad. But it also has to come to an end,” she said. “Life has its different seasons and different phases, and while we all had that tremendous experience of doing that work together, we can’t do that forever.”