Nearing pandemic’s two-year mark, public health officials reflect on lessons

Jill Ryan, state’s public health director, says ‘I can’t imagine a virus more complex than COVID’

Public health officials often plan for disease pandemics. All those plans went out the window in March 2020.

We’re now roughly two years from COVID-19’s first appearance in Colorado. It’s been a long two years.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director Jill Ryan and Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon recently took some time on a Zoom call to talk about the past couple of years and reflect on the progress made and what’s been learned in the past 24 months.

Ryan noted she was the county’s public health manager in the early 2000s. In planning for pandemics and other public health emergencies, Ryan said she and other officials never expected anything like the COVID-19 virus.

The fast-spreading, quickly-mutating virus, which affects people in ways ranging from few, if any symptoms to long-term debilitation to rapid death, quickly overwhelmed virtually every public health system, Ryan said.

Unimaginably complicated

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director Jill Ryan previously served as an Eagle County commissioner and as the county’s public health director.
Courtesy photo

“I can’t imagine a virus more complex than COVID,” Ryan said. “It was really scary early on,” she added.

Harmon, also a longtime public health professional, noted he’s only recently felt like he can take a deep breath after the past couple of years.

“No matter who you are, the past two years created a significant challenge,” Harmon said. “The piece I’m most proud of is the response from the entire community.”

Harmon praised the response from local governments, the Vail Health system and residents in responding to the virus.

That response simply couldn’t happen if residents didn’t show up, Harmon said, noting that the county’s first vaccine clinics were aided by roughly 1,000 community volunteers.

Those early vaccination clinics created a “deep sense of connection to the community,” Harmon said. “It was a moment of joyfulness.”

And, he noted, the Eagle County Commissioners, who also serve as the county’s board of health, took pains to listen to many different viewpoints.

“It’s OK to acknowledge that we’re not going to go through a two-year pandemic all being on the same page,” Harmon said. “But the commissioners were very open to listening to (the public).” That input “helped influence our approach.”

A good choice for testing

Since the state’s resort areas were the first to be hit by the virus, Ryan said Eagle County was a good choice for some of the early pilot programs.

Ryan said Eagle County had the resources, from its public health department to the resources at Vail Health, to be a good test bed.

“We knew we could pilot things here,” Ryan said, adding that Vail is easier to reach from Denver than other mountain communities.

Vail Health Safety Manager Kimberly Flynn and Vail Health Population Health Director Chris Lindley are joined by Airman First Class Samuel Weber of the Colorado National Guard in receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Vail Health in early 2021. Eagle County was the site of some early testing for COVID vaccines and treatments
Ben Gadberry, Vail Health/Vail Daily archive

Ryan, a former Eagle County Commissioner, was named the state’s public health director in January 2019. The past couple of years “have been super stressful,” she noted, adding that she’s among those who caught the omicron variant in late 2021.

While the virus in its first months eluded efforts to contain, or even treat, the bad cases, Ryan said the state’s public health system is in a much better place today.

Ryan noted that medical professionals have more tools, including vaccines and antiviral treatments.

The state also has contracts with testing labs and staffing contracts for hospitals that might need more people during spikes in new cases. Masking and social distancing are also now familiar to the population at large, she added.

Given the number of curve balls the virus threw at us, “I don’t think there’s anything that could surprise us any more,” she said.

While it seems like anything’s possible with the COVID virus, Harmon said this current pause in case spikes gives public health officials a period to regroup.

It’s also a good time to ponder the behavioral health impacts of the pandemic. “It’s a good time to reach out and rekindle our social connections,” he said.

“There are a lot of things to reflect on,” Harmon added. “For me, it’s gratitude for all the members of our community.”

By the numbers

10.2 million: Vaccines given in Colorado

12,536: Deaths in Colorado due to the COVID-19 virus

1,000: Volunteers at COVID-19 vaccination centers in Eagle County

73%: Percentage of Colorado residents 5 and older considered “fully vaccinated”

Sources: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Eagle County Public Health