Guest commentary: Pitkin County’s public health is a community effort

Karen Koenemann
Pitkin County Public Health Director

We are so fortunate to be able to live, work and play in Pitkin County. In 2018, County Health Rankings and Roadmaps ranked Pitkin among the top 10 counties in Colorado for length and quality of life.

We are privileged to have access to spectacular recreational trails, a top-notch school system, free educational and art events, world-class amenities within a small town, and a local community that values wellness. With the county seat in Aspen, Pitkin County also is among the wealthiest counties in the country.

Since high wealth communities correlate to better health, then why do we still see specific community health challenges? Unfortunately, the same factors that contribute to our healthy rating also can create barriers to good health.

Results of a recently completed Regional Community Health Assessment pointed out some glaring issues. Pitkin County has high rates of mental-health and substance-use disorders. Our cost of living is high. Affordable housing is scarce. Health insurance is unaffordable to many. Our resort population is transient and folks are socially and geographically isolated. And all of these factors are not segregated. They intertwine to create a complex web of cause and effect which influence the communities’ health outcomes.

For instance, the lack of affordable housing here impacts our ability to maintain a healthy and stable population. As housing costs rise, some community members, especially our workforce, are put in the difficult position of having to decide where their thinly stretched budget goes. Oftentimes they have to sacrifice spending money on preventive health care and nutritious food.

High rental rates can result in increased levels of stress surrounding financial security, and impact the mental health of our residents by increasing income and expense imbalances and commute times. This chronic stress increases the incidence of anxiety and depression, and raising of cortisol levels, which contributes to chronic disease.

And, for an older adult on a fixed income or a person of color who might face issues of systemic racism, the situation is exacerbated.

So, what role does public health have in addressing community health challenges?

At its highest function, public health is a public good, something in which we all have a stake. It is the health of the collective.

For example, no one can be excluded from the benefit of infectious disease reduction, and one person benefiting certainly does not preclude others from benefiting, as well. By focusing on the prevention of disease and supporting healthy social, environmental and economic conditions, we all benefit as members of an interconnected workforce and society.

Some of our local work involves behind-the-scenes disease investigation and tracking, data collection and assessment, planning for disease outbreaks and policy/regulatory development and implementation. This is where Public Health serves as a silent partner to the community — setting health strategies, keeping our air and water clean, and disease contained.

Some of our work involves recognizing gaps in resources and programs and working toward filling those gaps through the department or supporting community partners. This is reflective in bringing financial resources to support mental-health initiatives. Another portion of the work involves engaging community to drive policy decisions around issues such as housing, ensuring that their voice is being reflective in the solutions which are being proposed. This is a process still in development locally.

As members of our community are interconnected, so too are the many public and private organizations that make up our local public-health system. From agencies that provide access to walking paths and trails to preventive health care to those that work toward keeping our air clean, Public Health in Pitkin County is only as strong as our ability to collectively work for the health of all who live, work and play here.

As we commemorate National Public Health Week, I would like to thank the Pitkin County Public Health team and all of our partner organizations, which continue to strive, with the rest of our nation, to be the healthiest country in the world in one generation … using the power of prevention, advocating for health and fair policies, sharing strategies for successful public health partnerships and championing the role of a strong public health system.

Karen Koenemann is the Pitkin County Public Health Director. On Mondays, The Aspen Times is hosting a guest column from a Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit, government agency or local entity.


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