Pitkin County’s health director leaving for job in home state of Alaska

Pitkin County Public Health director Karen Koenemann, left, talks with Aspen Valley Hospital CEO Dave Ressler during a meeting before the pandemic.
Mountain Family Health/courtesy photo

Pitkin County’s manager will appoint an interim public health director from within the department in the next week or so and consider a national search for a permanent replacement after the winter season.

A replacement for Public Health Director Karen Koenemann, who resigned Wednesday, also could come from within the department, said Jon Peacock, county manager.

“There are a number of people internally who could be qualified (for the job),” he said.

Koenemann plans to move back to her native Alaska to take a job with a philanthropic health care nonprofit near Anchorage. She said the pull of returning to a state that she’s missed since moving to Wyoming and Colorado was too much to resist.

“It’s a place that holds dear in my heart,” Koenemann said Wednesday, noting that she’s lived in nearly every part of the state. “I have deep connection to the land and the state.”

Koenemann was hired in 2017 as the county’s first public health director to guide the newly created Public Health Department. Previously, Pitkin County contracted out many public health services.

The department, which had five full-time employees when COVID-19 hit in March, has grown exponentially in the past seven months to a staff of 25 and a budget of more than $4 million.

And while Koenemann did not specifically say the pandemic was her reason for leaving, it clearly took a toll.

“It’s been challenging,” she said. “There’s not a public health director in the country who wouldn’t say that.”

She said she cares about the implications of the decisions she makes or helps make on people’s lives.

“That’s been really hard,” Koenemann said. “That responsibility weighed heavily on me throughout the pandemic.”

In addition, the anger, abuse and threats she and others in the public health field have experienced since the pandemic began have been hard to take. It’s been difficult to hear about the death threats and stories about people’s dogs being poisoned, she said.

“I have a lot of grief and loss for the public health system,” Koenemann said. “We’ve become a target for fear and anger and frustration.”

Still, COVID-19 also allowed for a degree of soul-searching that might not have come about under normal circumstances, she said.

“The pandemic allowed us to think about the bigger picture,” Koenemann said. “It allowed me to think about what is meaningful, and Alaska is a meaningful part of my life.”

Koenemann’s resignation comes as COVID-19 cases are increasing in Pitkin County and across Colorado and the United States.

Public health officials reported four new coronavirus cases Tuesday, which brought the 14-day total to 38, according to online statistics, though no new cases were reported Wednesday. In addition, the county’s incidence rate of the disease — based on census population numbers — has been in the orange or Level 3 “high risk” area for the past two days. If it remains above 175 per 100,000 population for three days, the state will contact local authorities and require a mitigation plan, parts of which have already been implemented.

The county’s average two-week positivity rate also was creeping up and stood above 5% Thursday evening. Public health officials have said they want to keep that rate below 5% because that demonstrates that enough testing is being done in the community.

“We have received notice from the state that they are watching our metrics,” Peacock told county commissioners Wednesday.

Some neighboring counties have had more serious restrictions imposed recently, and Pitkin County must do the same, he said. He again urged residents to avoid gatherings of more than five people, continue to socially distance and wear facemasks to avoid a similar fate.

“It could be a problem for us if we don’t get a handle on this,” Peacock said. “This is our off-season and we need to get control. It’s so important if we’re going to have our winter … and some sense of normalcy.”

As far as managing the pandemic going forward without Koenemann, Peacock expressed confidence with the current public health team.

“Under Karen’s leadership, our young Public Health Department has accomplished so much in a short period of time,” Peacock said in a press release Wednesday announcing Koenemann’s resignation. “I will personally miss working with Karen, especially her steady hand as we face the generational challenge of COVID-19. We wish Karen nothing but the best.”

Koenemann seconded his assessment.

“I leave a team of thoughtful, committed, smart and skilled public health professionals, and I have complete confidence in their skills and leadership abilities to guide this community through these challenging public health times,” Koeneman said in the press release. “It has been my privilege to serve Pitkin County and I am proud of the work the public health team has done in the short amount of time the department has been in existence.”

In addition to guiding the department through the pandemic since March, Peacock also gave Koenemann credit for building the department from scratch, increasing access to mental health treatment for residents including a program that pairs a mental health professional with local police officers and tobacco cessation efforts.

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