A COLORADO COMMUNITY MEDIA / COLORADO SUN PROJECT

Threats, vandalism, job loss: Colorado’s public health officials are under attack as they respond to coronavirus

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Editor's Note: This story is the result of a reporting collaboration by Colorado Community Media and The Colorado Sun.

Joni Reynolds, the head of Gunnison County’s public health department, entered kind of a routine as the coronavirus crisis descended on Colorado earlier this year: Long hours. Sleepless nights. A police escort home.

A wave of threats over her efforts to keep her community safe amid the pandemic made her fear for her safety. There were also suspicious packages left outside her house and sent to her office, both of which were unsettling but weren’t dangerous.

“References to Nazism. Calling me Mrs. Hitler,” Reynolds said, recounting the contents of the hate mail she received. “Calling me vile names — curse words. Threatening harm to me, my family, my home. Assuring they would remove me from my job and take ‘all my worldly possessions.’”

Public health officials in every corner of Colorado have become the target of threats, vandalism and even attack ads in newspapers and on the radio as a result of their handling of the pandemic.

They are unelected government workers who typically do important, but seldom acknowledged, work preventing disease outbreaks and inspecting restaurants. But during the coronavirus crisis, the harsh spotlight of a politicized pandemic has shined upon them.

Some have faced blowback from their bosses — often county commissioners — and have been forced out of their jobs. Others have resigned because the stress and pressure just aren’t worth it.

“It just adds additional stress and strain on a workforce that has been responding even before the very first case was registered in the state of Colorado and the first death was registered in the state of Colorado,” said Theresa Anselmo, executive director of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health officials, which represents the state’s local public health departments. “They’ve been working nonstop, essentially, since the beginning of February, some of them earlier.”

> MORE: Imagining Douglas County without Tri-County Health

With no end to the pandemic in sight, officials worry whether Colorado’s network of local public health departments can tamp down the vitriol while trying to keep on top of the worst pandemic the world has experienced in 100 years. At some point, they fear, the combined pressure could become too heavy.

“We’re in this for the next 12 to 24 months. Even with a vaccine, this isn’t going to go away in Colorado,” Anselmo said. “So public health will be on the front lines of this for months, if not years, to come.”

Anselmo even has a folder in her email inbox dedicated to all of the threats her members have received: twice-vandalized cars, a photograph with comments about “bodies swinging from trees,” the arrest of a man who said health officials “deserve to pay.”

“I’ve never experienced anything to this level”

Dr. Mark Johnson, who leads Jefferson County Public Health, says he’s been involved in contentious battles with the state legislature and over the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the former nuclear weapons trigger factory near Golden that now is open for public recreation.

But coronavirus is a different beast. “I’ve never experienced anything to this level,” he said.

Johnson said his agency has received a number of threats, which have been turned over to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office for investigation. Police have increased their patrols around the health department building.

Johnson even said a police car has been parked near his home to keep things calm. But his department continues to be at the center of tensions surrounding the coronavirus crisis.

Recently, Johnson has been locked in a court battle with the owners of Bandimere Speedway over a packed July 4 event. The controversy drew supporters and detractors to the Jefferson County courthouse where there were dueling demonstrations. The speedway argues that public health limitations placed on them — that only 175 people can gather there at a time — would end their business.

“This is the most politicized or partisan pandemic that the world has ever seen,” Johnson said.

Jordan Kemp, deputy director for public health in Alamosa County, said after a photo of the health department director was posted online with crude and threatening comments, the agency shut down its offices — “just to be safe and just to kind of give everybody a day to breathe a little bit.”

In Las Animas and Huerfano counties, a group called “Colorado Counties for Freedom” ran an ad seeking to diminish the authority of health department director Kim Gonzales. Gonzales is the official whose car has been vandalized twice since the coronavirus crisis began, according to Anselmo.

“It is time we bring life back into our communities and protect the American dream by opening up all of main street,” the ad says. “Protect our communities in Walsenburg and Trinidad and the American dream like other counties in Colorado have done. … We need to unite and diminish the authority of the health department director, Kim Gonzales.”

A person who gave their name as J.R. Rags and said they were behind Colorado Counties for Freedom said in an email that “these health department directors are generally not qualified to make decisions for everyone”

“There are many concerns about kids not attending school, business closures and government overreach,” Rags said. “And as you can imagine our group has found that true, unbiased media and journalism is almost dead in America.”

> MORE: ‘I was really sick and close to death’

In Gunnison County, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched a battle with local leaders and public health officials over an order requiring second home owners to stay away. It was issued out of concerns that the county’s limited medical resources could be overrun, but drew intense blowback, including a federal lawsuit from an Arvada couple.

“The banishment of nonresident Texas homeowners is entirely unconstitutional and unacceptable,” Paxton said in a written statement.

In the wake of the debacle, a group of second homeowners has formed a political group to try to oust the Democratic majority on the Gunnison County commission. “I think the county commissioners are using a sledgehammer when a screwdriver is probably more appropriate,” said Trudy Vader, who is vying for a seat on the board.

A Republican state lawmaker from Douglas County -- State Rep. Mark Baisley,  R-Roxborough Park -- even called for criminal charges to be filed against Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the head of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, for her agency’s handling of death certificates of people who had COVID-19 and then died. Prosecutors said there was no evidence a law had been broken.

The public health officials who spoke to The Colorado Sun and Colorado Community Media say they can understand people’s reaction. In fact, they have a diagnosis: the vitriol is a symptom of the pandemic.

“I’ve tried to relate it back, as a nurse and as someone who has been in public health for a number of years, to just really the trauma that people have experienced — an unprecedented level of trauma where the world literally shifted overnight,” said Reynolds, the Gunnison County public health chief. “And the fear. And the not knowing — the uncertainty of the future — I think has really caused the reactions that we’ve seen.”

The unknowns might be chalked up to a communication issue.

“I don’t think we have done a great job in this country teaching people how science works,” Johnson said.

One county has gone through two public health chiefs

Some local public health leaders have simply thrown in the towel or have been pushed out of their positions. The Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials counts at least six resignations and one firing in Colorado since the pandemic began.

Emily Brown says she was terminated as Rio Grande County’s public health director after clashing with county commissioners in late May. She wanted to keep restrictions in place while the elected leaders were pushing for them to be relaxed.

Brown told The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News that the commissioners “were tired of me not going along the line they wanted me to go along.”

The replacement Rio Grande County hired to fill Brown’s shoes, Paul Wertz, has since resigned. “I have concluded that I do not have the board’s support,” he wrote in an email, according to The Monte Vista Journal.

> MORE: Colorado Gov. Polis issues statewide mask order, hoping for 'wake-up call’

In Weld County, Dr. Mark Wallace’s 20-year run as the head of the local health department ended when he left his job after clashing with county commissioners over how to begin loosening coronavirus restrictions.

“I have serious heartburn looking at our data in Weld County,” Wallace wrote to the commissioners in an internal email obtained by The NoCo Optimist through an open records request.

Wallace announced his retirement in May, about a week after the correspondence was made public. He did not respond to Colorado Sun messages seeking an interview.

The Local Public Health Officials association said the other retirements happened in Clear Creek, Saguache, Fremont and Custer counties.

The Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, saw an exit of an even larger magnitude. As a result of the health department’s handling of the pandemic, a long-simmering debate about whether Douglas County should create its own health department boiled over.

When Tri-County moved to initiate a mask-wearing mandate earlier this month, Douglas County’s conservative commissioners announced they’d had enough and ordered their staff to initiate a breakup.

Dr. John Douglas, who leads Tri-County, called the decision “extraordinarily disruptive to our staff and planning in the middle of a pandemic.” Now, there are also fears of job cuts among his staff.

“I think it’s deeply — and I want to underscore deeply — disappointing, in the time of a pandemic, the divisiveness in this country,” Douglas said. “The people on the frontlines responding to the pandemic are getting attacked. It’s clearly a minority, but a vocal minority.”

The situation has even drawn the attention of the governor.

“Now more than ever the work of our local public health directors is crucial to successfully fighting this virus and protecting Coloradans,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a written statement. “We need to do everything within our power to support our local heroes and use their expertise and knowledge to win.”

Tri-County’s big troubles

You could call Tri-County the epicenter of Colorado’s epidemic of rage being directed at public health officials. Nowhere else in the state has the combination of frustrations, threats, vandalism and political fallout played out more clearly, altogether and all at once.

Tri-County’s Deputy Director Jennifer Ludwig said the department started taking heat early on in the health crisis, after issuing a stay-at-home order in March ahead of Colorado’s statewide mandate.

At first, backlash fixated on department executives. Then it spilled over into vandalism at Tri-County’s buildings. The department’s Aurora South location was targeted six times.

“We closed that office after, I believe, the third window got broken,” she said.

Police arrested 36-year-old Dan Pesch in connection with the vandalism. He told a detective that Tri-County officials “deserve to pay.”

“They’re just not getting the message,” Pesch said, according to arrest documents. “So, I just have to keep increasing the intensity.”

> MAP: Where Colorado’s coronavirus cases, deaths have been identified

When Tri-County’s board was poised to adopt a mask mandate earlier this month, the department’s phones started ringing with complaints. Once the order passed, the hate mail started, Ludwig said.

This time, critics aimed their frustrations at the board of health, calling directors “tyrants” and “Nazis.” On July 8, Tri-County closed its Greenwood Village location for two days while police investigated a threat against the agency.

Ludwig said her employees are battling burnout. Doing their jobs amid threats, vandalism and backlash has been “very distressing, and I think it’s disheartening,” she said.

Some of those same workers are now bracing for unemployment because of the breakup with Douglas County, which is expected to happen in a year. If it ultimately happens, it will be the end of a five-decade-plus partnership.

Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, who helped make the decision to sever ties with Tri-County, defended the move. He said commissioners grew frustrated when Tri-County’s board voted to implement the mask-wearing mandate in Douglas County, even though the health department’s staff had recommended that the county be given a choice whether to opt into the mandate.

Laydon also pointed to Douglas County’s explosive growth as another reason for the split.

“This isn’t a divorce,” he said. “I think this is really more of an empty-nest scenario, where the kids have grown up a bit and you love them on to bigger and better things.”

(Gov. Polis has since implemented a statewide mask-wearing mandate, which will apply to Douglas County.)

Leaving Tri-County and opting out of the agency’s mask order quickly emerged as hot button issues in the races for Douglas County commissioner. Two of the county’s three seeks are contested in November.

> MORE: Colorado legislative leader Patrick Neville threatens suit over Polis mask order

Commissioner Lora Thomas, a Republican, is seeking re-election in November and running against Democratic challenger Darien Wilson.

Commissioner Roger Partridge is term-limited. He will be replaced by whomever wins the contest between Republican George Teal, now a Castle Rock councilmember, and Democrat Lisa Neal-Graves. Victoria Reynolds, a Libertarian, is also running for Partridge’s seat.

Wilson and Neal-Graves have been critical of the commissioners’ handling of the pandemic and the relationship with Tri-County.

Laydon said he has “the highest level of respect” for public health workers and Douglas, the Tri-County chief. He urged community members to stop spreading hate and to “try to assume the best” of people responding to the pandemic.

Asked if Douglas County’s departure could stoke the anger directed at Tri-County, Laydon said he believes the decision will have “just the opposite” effect.

“I think it was a move to protect the public health professionals, because I think in many ways it’s a safety valve,” he said. “I think there was a lot less vitriol (after), so I think there’s a sense of relief among our citizens, at least the majority of our citizens.”

How to make it in the long run

The stressors placed on local public health agencies across Colorado have prompted them to develop coping strategies.

In southwest Colorado, officials have created a support group.

The Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials says it has solicited the help of a social worker to help out local public health directors who need an outlet. It’s also working to tap the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s crisis counseling team, which normally responds to tragedies like a mass shooting, to offer aid to overwhelmed public health workers.

“They can’t even lift their heads up out of the trenches to stop the work enough to take care of themselves,” Anselmo said. “I will often close a conversation that I’m having with a director by saying ‘i hope you get some peace’ or ‘I hope you have some time this weekend to rejuvenate and take care of yourself. Often the response I will get is ‘nope, not this weekend. I have x, y, z to do.’”

Ludwig said Tri-County employs a health and wellness nurse coordinator who sends newsletters to staff twice a week. Tips cover mindfulness and links to mental health resources, and the newsletter also includes bits of humor.

Executives have also increased communication with employees, holding town halls every Friday to address hard topics, she said, “such as the decision of Douglas County to withdraw.”

Jefferson County Public Health has even assigned several staffers to a unit dedicated to respond to the mental health needs of its roughly 180 employees so they can get care if they have to deal with a particularly traumatic coronavirus case or if the workload is simply getting to them. Great demand prompted the team to grow after it was initially formed.

“Over time I think a lot of the staff are absorbing the stress and the trauma,” said Jennifer Anton, who is heading up behavioral health messaging for Jefferson County’s health department.

Jim Austin, who leads the local public health department in Montrose, said he’s found success in allaying community concerns about coronavirus-induced restrictions. Yes, he says, there are still frustrations and “people who are upset and need to be talked through the issue.”

But he has found that taking the time to explain why rules are being put in place has helped prevent some of the backlash seen elsewhere.

“It requires patience. It requires hanging in there with people and making sure to answer their questions,” Austin said. “But that’s our job. We understand people’s frustrations. It’s summer time. It’s events season.”

Back in Gunnison County, Reynolds said she is frustrated by how much more difficult the attacks have made it for her to accomplish the already difficult job. At the time the hate was streaming in, the county was one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

“At a time when we’re really in a crisis in our community and nationally, it’s a limited capacity as far as your emotional reserve,” Reynolds said. “I think what frustrated me the most is I had to expend some of my time when I needed to rest or some of my emotional energy really in an area that didn’t benefit the community. And that’s really where I wanted to be focusing my energy.”

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