County hears public comment on Public Health Director

Paul Wertz, who was recently named Interim Public Health Director

RIO GRANDE COUNTY- Several members of the public made comments on behalf of past Public Health Director Emily Brown and voiced their concerns about the decision of the county and Rio Grande Board of Health pertaining to the termination of Brown.

During the regular meeting of the Rio Grande Board of County Commissioners, May 27, Chairman John Noffsker opened the public comment period with a comment about the board having a further public health conversation later in the agenda but allowed the public to speak on behalf of the subject.

Monte Vista resident Laura Conchelos was the first to address the board with her concerns about the decision to terminate Brown stating, “I want to make sure that there was due diligence and I understand that there is a privacy issue but her writing and communication with the public was more than efficient. I also wanted to know if town officials were involved in the decision to terminate Emily. I trust their direction more than I do the commissioners right now.”

Next to speak was Liza Marron, a representative from Saguache, and Director of the SLV Local Foods Coalition who worked closely with Brown through several programs including the Monte Vista farmers market who stated, “Emily was the most professional and respectful Public health professional to work with. I am concerned about the experience of the new Public Health Director that was hired. Emily was highly respected throughout the state and the Valley and I think this was a mistake. I am very distraught about the firing of Emily.”

Courtney Hurst spoke to the board also stating that she was concerned about the decision of the board to terminate Brown, “I am a resident of Del Norte and I would like to echo all the concerns that the previous two public members have voiced. I know Emily Brown on a personal level but I have also had a chance to witness her in a professional capacity. Without some sort of evidence that there was wrongdoing, negligence, breaking of regulations, etc. I am deeply concerned about the decision to remove her. I feel like she made hard decisions to keep us safe during this pandemic and I am very perplexed that she was removed without further information.”

Eva Timberlake addressed the board and asked if there were any other health professionals involved in the decision to terminate Brown and requested minutes from the past two months to be posted online.

At this point, Chairman Noffsker spoke to the public stating again that more information would be provided during the portion of the agenda that was set aside to address the Public Health Issue. “Others were consulted in making this decision and it was not done in isolation. More information that was part of public meetings will be shared during that portion of the agenda.”

Candice Allen, Chief Nursing Officer with Rio Grande Hospital was the last to speak during the public comment period stating, “I would like to speak to the professionalism of Emily Brown. She was an integral part of Rio Grande Hospital’s communication link with incident command and if we had not had her in her role integrating, communicating and sharing information with us in incident command, we would have been by far out of the loop. We couldn’t have done what we were doing without her and we wanted that noted.”

After working through the remainder of the agenda, commissioners opened the Public Health portion and explained, “This decision was not taken lightly.” All commissioners voiced their confidence in the new Interim Public Health Director Paul Wertz and the board ratified their decision with a unanimous vote. Noffsker stated, “It was made based on information that the board had, deep concerns that the board had, and as we are beginning to have more visibility from the public health department, we now have even more concerns and may have to complete a full audit. We may have some issues with grant compliance over the last few years and will have to deal with that if needed.”

Rio Grande County Attorney Ryan Dunn answered questions about HIPPA violations made by the Board of Health that was posed by a member of the public. Dunn stated that the board is privy to certain information that may not be available to the public. “The board is privy to information and none of the information sought under the Public Health order constituted a HIPPA violation.” Dunn also clarified that the May 22 meeting that resulted in the termination of Brown was an executive session that was posted 24-hours in advance and abided by Sunshine Laws.

In an interview conducted Monday, May 25, Rio Grande County Commissioner Chairman John Noffsker explained that the county wants to better serve the community of Rio Grande County by utilizing their resources in a more efficient manner. “We made our decision based on the need to have the public health department run more cooperatively, efficiently and effectively to strengthen our focus on the COVID-19 situation. We need to be provided accurate information and numbers and in order to achieve these objectives, the public health department is being restructured to better address the crisis.”

County officials hired Public Health Nurse Paul Wertz as the interim Public Health Director Friday, May 22, and asked that he make his main focus to reassigning staff to more effectively utilize resources and providing accurate data to the board in a timely fashion. “There are only two nurses in the public health department. They need to give most of their efforts to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Through preliminary discussions, we were able to construct a tentative plan that would free up to eight hours a day for these nurses to efficiently work on active COVID-19 cases, testing and initial contact tracing while leaving other less urgent tasks to the remainder of the staff in the department,” said Noffsker.

“We were recently granted a variance through the State of Colorado. The variance is dependent on trigger points within our county. It is more important now than ever to receive accurate data on COVID-19 cases in the county in order to ensure the safety of our communities."