Update: as of Friday, March 26, according to Jordan Hedberg, editor of the Wet Mountain Tribune, all three Custer County commissioners have tested positive for COVID-19, the result of what's now referred to as a super spreader event tied to the March 10 meeting. At least one county commission staffer who attended that meeting is hospitalized with COVID.
Tuesday, a bill that started out to remove the ability of county commissioners to simultaneously serve on their county's health boards passed the House Transportation and Local Government Committee on a 7-4 party-line vote, but the bill was gutted after pressure from county commissioners, and what's left is merely a training requirement without teeth.
The issue is typified by what's going on in Custer County. Just like many other counties in Colorado, it doesn't have a separate board of public health. The county commissioners ARE the board of public health.
The Custer board of health in July hired an optometrist not licensed by the state of Colorado, Clifford Brown, as its public health director. Brown's alleged credentials include a public health degree from a diploma mill that is not authorized to award degrees by any accrediting body. He is now being investigated by the state ethics commission over breaching the public trust for personal gain.
Recently, the Custer board of health decided the county would no longer follow the state COVID-19 mandates. That's not played well with the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), which threatened the public health board with financial consequences.
The board affirmed they would stick to their position in a March 10 meeting at the county courthouse attended by community members, almost none wearing masks. A week later, the county reported an outbreak at the county courthouse. The two people who tested positive, according to the Wet Mountain Tribune, were the staffer to the Board of County Commissioners/Board of Health — and one of the commissioners.
As introduced, House Bill 1115, sponsored by Reps. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, and Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn, would have barred county commissioners from serving on their county health boards.
Kipp told the committee that citizens have reached out to her, frustrated when their county commissioners, acting as the board of public health, ignore public health guidelines related to COVID-19. Public health directors have been pushed out of their jobs because of the politicized environment around COVID-19, Kipp said. Public health left to politicians, instead of public health experts, leads to poor public health outcomes. Nineteen public health agencies in Colorado have lost their directors since the pandemic began, Kipp said, and some county commissions have publicly flaunted their violations of public health orders, as is the case in Custer County.
But Kipp and Mullica, bowing to pressure from county commissioners, threw out the original bill and came up with a new one that merely requires members of a county health board — who under the bill can still be on the county commission — to take annual public health training, to be provided by the CDPHE and the Colorado School of Public Health. The bill does not set any consequences for failing to take the training.
"We're trying to get politics out of public health," added Mullica. "We need to rely on the science" and not let politics get in the way.
Teller County Commissioner Dan Williams said the bill is a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist. "We are still trusted and leading our counties," he said.
"The system we have is not broken," despite anecdotal evidence and news stories that show disagreements with the state by county commissioners, said fellow Teller County Commissioner Erik Stone. Disagreements are not necessarily bad, he added. In his county, they set up a 72-bed surge hospital in 72 hours, without state help.
Dr. Glen Mays, a professor at the public health school, said research over several decades shows that communities benefit when they are served by independent boards of public health. Those independent boards are more successful at implementing evidence-based public health programs consistent with state and federal public health agencies, May said.
Public health must be free of political interference, said Dr. Mark Johnson, president-elect of the Colorado Medical Society. Citing a 1946 report, Johnson said the health of people in any state is altogether too important to place it in a position to be completely susceptible to political machinations. House Bill 1115 would help depoliticize public health in Colorado by requiring continuing education and training for boards of public health, Johnson added.
Some counties also struggle to find people to serve on the boards, according to several commissioners, and the same 10 people often serve on multiple boards, leading to fatigue.
Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell, who is also president of Colorado Counties, Inc., told the committee that county commissioners do good work as boards of health. She described how the board tried to protect their public health director, who got death threats that extended to her husband and newborn baby. "We were able to protect her physically but not mentally" and she resigned. The county commissioners also received threats, she said.
The board of health is political, she said, but don't make it any more political than it already is. Appointing volunteer citizens to the board of health would add another layer of political red tape, she said.
House Bill 1115 now heads to the full House for debate and votes.