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Our View: Public health workers deserve accolades, not blame

On Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, managers at San Juan Basin Public Health gathered to discuss how they might prepare for the coming COVID-19 pandemic. They had no idea what to expect. And like the rest of us, they were scared – for themselves and their families and for the people of the community they serve.

After the meeting, everyone went home for the weekend to pore over the agency’s pandemic plans, quarantining and isolation orders, communicable disease plans and other pertinent documents that previously had been only reviewed from time to time as required.

On Monday, March 1, they met again, creating an incident command structure not unlike a law enforcement agency’s strategy to handle a disaster. Assignments were made. Responsibilities of those now working primarily on COVID-19 were reassigned to other full-time employees.

Everyone’s job became bigger, and harder, overnight.

Ten months later, SJBPH employees are still working late into the night and seven days a week, and everyone who took on someone else’s responsibilities is still doing them. Not one of the 80 or so employees at the agency has been unaffected. And their complex work – intended to help individuals, families and the entire community gain access to health care and related services – is much more complicated now, because COVID-19 has made it so.

The agency’s $6 million budget has been taxed by the demands of COVID-19, despite supplementary funding from the county and state. The strain on resources forced the handoff of two significant programs, along with their workers and budgets, to other agencies. SJBPH also has had to downsize six other programs because of COVID-19.

But those are not the only reasons SJBPH workers feel like they’re suffering a very peculiar form of PTSD.

They’re getting blamed for COVID-19 itself, the state and local regulations intended to stop its spread and the fallout from those regulations.

Street protesters have carried signs reading, “Defund SJBPH.” Protesters have stormed the reception desk at SJBPH, frightening workers who have nothing to do with policymaking, and staged protests in the building’s parking lot, scaring patients of an unrelated agency that shares the lot. Leaders have received disrespectful comments – some amounting to death threats – on social media and through email.

Life as a public health worker in La Plata and Archuleta counties these days is exhausting and terrifying. Workers are fearful for their personal safety and the safety of their family members and homes. Everyone has made lifestyle adjustments for security reasons.

They are not alone. Across the country, public health officials have become political targets.

At least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April 1, according to an ongoing investigation by The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News. Their departures have been prompted by death threats, political attacks and other blowback from the pandemic.

In Colorado, at least 15 top public health officials have left their posts. Others have to be escorted to and from work by police to ensure their safety.

The leadership at SJBPH – Executive Director and Incident Commander Liane Jollon and Environmental Health Director and Deputy Incident Commander Brian Devine – and their staff members deserve to be thanked, not vilified, for their work. With calm heads and pragmatism, they have done their best to implement the regulations they have been handed and fought to contain COVID-19 in our community – all while continuing to meet our everyday needs and the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Medical professionals have been valorized since the start of this pandemic. Public health workers are among the unsung heroes of this crisis. It’s time to start treating them like it.

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