An Open Letter From Chaffee Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom

Chaffee County Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom.

There are no words to accurately describe the events of the past several months.

In fact, every time I have sat down to write this letter, I am at a loss on what to say, don’t know where to begin, or I get pulled in a different direction due to so many competing priorities. However, there have been many lessons learned throughout this pandemic journey, and while it is not over yet, I would like to share my observations and perspectives that I have gathered. This is by no means exhaustive.

1. Strong and supportive leadership is essential in navigating the various stages of pandemic response. Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) has not been responding to COVID-19 in a silo. Our county and municipal leaders and administrators, along with a large group of stakeholders representing economic recovery, human services, school districts, healthcare, behavioral health, and emergency response and management, have been a unified team here in Chaffee County early on to coordinate and collaborate efforts to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on our community.

2. Communication is crucial, and even when we think we have all of our bases covered, there is always room for improvement. CCPH provided daily Facebook Live updates throughout each week and hosted weekly town halls with local subject matter experts for ten weeks during the thick of the event. In addition, we established community information boards at several large businesses, created a Facebook page solely dedicated to COVID-19 information and resources, and updated the county’s website with useful tools and documents as they have been made available. For weeks now, we have been providing our county with a weekday daily situational awareness report that has the latest local data and links to request forms, complete safety checklists, and share prevention strategies. Due to our continued stable COVID-19 environment, we will be scaling back our reports to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Throughout the event, we have been distributing press releases and public service announcements while also participating in countless interviews both on the radio and for our local newspapers. While our department moved to virtual operations in March, staff members have been fielding voicemails and questions on social media as quickly as possible.

3. Reopening our community in a gradual manner in the safest way possible is no easy feat. Slowly lifting restrictions has caused many people to reach out to my department and county leaders with feelings of unfairness, frustration, and at times, anger. The public health system, both locally and beyond, has been put through incredible strain and unchartered demand. However, CCPH can’t thank our community enough for the patience, endurance, support, and creativity demonstrated in Stay at Home and Safer at Home phases of COVID-19 response. CCPH is hopeful that the much anticipated Protect Our Neighbors phase will be well received and people will still take the requirements, guidance, and considerations seriously. Including subject-matter experts from the various industries in writing variance requests and in decision-making has been helpful as we thoughtfully reopen our county.

4. Without a vaccine and other therapeutic interventions, public health’s prevention strategies are simple. While not popular among everyone, appropriately wearing masks or cloth face coverings is still one of the ways to reduce transmission of the virus to someone else. CCPH recognizes that there are organizations that have gone back and forth on this as information about the virus has been made available. In addition, keeping at least a 6 foot distance from one another whenever possible is still an important measure that needs to be taken.

Handwashing has never been more important, and proper sanitization must continue to be prioritized. In pre-pandemic times, a common cough or low-grade fever would not necessarily keep us home, but amidst COVID-19, any COVID-19 symptom is grounds for staying putt.

5. Public health strategies work, and it takes all of us to make a difference. Because of the sacrifices made by everyone in our county, we have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus locally. Congratulations are in order. While we are not out of the woods yet, life can continue as we adapt to our “new normal.”

In the darkest and most challenging moments of our pandemic response, gratitude has gotten me through. I am grateful to my amazing CCPH team that quickly pivoted to offer as many virtual public health services as possible while assuming the lead role in our local COVID-19 response. I owe my team a lot of chocolate. In addition, I am thankful for the consistent support and dedication from our county’s leaders, including county commissioners and administrators, municipality elected officials and management, economic development corporation, school districts, behavioral health, emergency medical services and management, human services, long-term care, hospital and healthcare community, and so many more. The outpouring of generosity, from financial contributions to our community foundation, to cloth mask donations, to the countless displays of support to Columbine Manor and our healthcare and first responder community, has been a testament to how special Chaffee County really is. We don’t know what the future holds in store for us, but one thing I do know is that in times of darkness, Chaffee County shines. Thank you!

Andrea Carlstrom
Director and COVID-10 Incident Commander
Chaffee County Public Health, Salida, CO

Dan R