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This week’s county COVID-19 trends were discussed at Wednesday’s San Miguel Board of County Commissioners meeting. (Screenshot by Suzanne Cheavens/Telluride Daily Planet)

Telluride has long been a hotbed of innovation, progressive thought, and a welcoming home for every era’s great thinkers, professionals and experts in numerous fields. When the COVID-19 pandemic muscled its way into the national consciousness last March, San Miguel County Public Health Director Grace Franklin, who was hired a little over a month before, was thrust into one of the more extreme aspects of her profession — that of guiding emergency policies designed to protect the health of county citizens. She hardly acted alone. Not only did her department and others throughout Colorado have a pipeline to state public health officials, but in her own backyard emerged a cadre of uniquely qualified individuals who were, and still are, willing and able to impart their knowledge to the mission of protecting the county’s citizens from the virus that has so far claimed more than 700,000 live in the U.S. Those six people, all volunteers, were honored at Wednesday’s Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting.

Joel Lee, Elizabeth Regan, Jeff Kocher, Greg Craig, Thomas Preston and Eileen Barrett were honored by commissioners Lance Waring, Kris Holstrom and Hilary Cooper, as well as by county staff, for the expertise they provided Franklin and others as the county navigated the often-shifting ground of the novel coronavirus. Experts in the field of medicine, epidemiology, public health and infectious disease policy, the six provided their time — and sometimes money — to help provide expert advice and data analysis to the public health department.

BOCC chair Waring read the official proclamation into the record.

“ … whereas their public health and healthcare expertise is nationally renowned and they have shown a strong commitment to the health of the county, whereas their contributions to San Miguel County COVID response have been significant. And whereas the advisory group continues to support public health approaches to meet and exceed national and statewide standards for social determinants of health, and public health, best practices.”

“There are people in this advisory group that I've come to know and appreciate and feel just extremely lucky to live in a community that not only attracts and has such well educated, intelligent, thoughtful individuals that are willing to contribute numerous hours, but sometimes numerous dollars,” said county manager Mike Bordogna. “It really does take a village not just to raise a child but to get through a pandemic. I don't think we would have been as successful without their help.”

Bordogna also directed his praise to Franklin, who had just arrived for her job at the county seat in February.

“It takes a really competent and professional leader like Grace to accept help sometimes,” he said. “We've had numerous offers of help throughout the pandemic of various things, whether it's supplies or advice or analyzing data points, or even helping to initiate programs, and I've seen an openness and willingness on Grace's part to not only have the conversations with the folks making these offers, but then vetting out how that is really going to result in the best decision-making and programming to address the pandemic, and so I wanted to commend her.”

Franklin called the advisory group, a group that met in its official capacity for the first time in August 2020, “power team of six spectacular citizens,” who were “the silent contributors to public health,” in her recognition of their behind-the-scenes efforts.

“This group is really experts and leaders in the field of public health and health care that live in our community and really wanted to make a difference throughout this pandemic response,” Franklin said.

Through conversations and brainstorming sessions before that first August meeting and beyond, Franklin said the group was instrumental in helping establish public health policy that made the county notable for its swift and effective actions.

In the course of the pandemic, Bordogna said the public health department received a great deal of trust and support from not only resident experts, but also from a citizenry that has been largely compliant with some of the more extreme precautions that were put in place, such as limits on lodging capacity and indoor restaurant seating, social distancing, and mask mandates. Still, he said, there was pushback, though not to the degree of physical violence and intimidation other departments nationally and regionally have endured.

“I don’t know of any specific threats to public health throughout the pandemic, which is amazing considering what some of our neighboring communities and counties’ public health and county staff have endured,” he said prior to Wednesday’s meeting. “When we first had the shutdown, I was fielding between 100 to 200 calls and emails per day, the majority of which were telling me of how the shutdown restrictions were impacting them — a lot of we were ‘robbing them of their livelihoods and taking food out of their children’s mouths’ and expressing their frustrations of our restrictions being more stringent than those of our neighboring counties.

“Ironically, I had the most complaints when we rolled out the $3 million-plus in business assistance funds and have only been called a Nazi once for asking a visitor to wear their mask in our building. I feel overall extremely fortunate to have gone through this COVID experience in our county, which has been more supportive than I could have hoped for.”

He once again pointed to Franklin’s “calm leadership” for the trust the public demonstrated for the department.

“I personally think that the professionalism of our public health department and Grace’s calm leadership has engendered trust, even when residents may not have liked some of the actions taken,” he said.

In yesterday’s weekly public health update for the commissioners — sitting as the board of health — Franklin reviewed local and state COVID metrics that included, among other data points, a preponderance of cases in the 18-24 year-old demographic, and a nearly even balance of cases split between the more populous east end of the county and the rural Norwood and west end communities. Franklin called young adults a “more sociable” population that can often be asymptomatic.

“(In) the 18- to 24-year-old population we're starting to see a lot more spread within clusters of social groups,” she said. “Some of the talking points there is that these groups have a lower vaccination rate, feel healthy, but are in the more sociable kind of population so we're starting to see that shift a bit, and so we're working with communications to better communicate why vaccinations, as well as other preventative measures are important to all age groups, including our young adult population.”

Though experiencing case numbers on par with the east end of the county, residents in the county’s third district continue to advocate for a bifurcation of the county, so as to be exempt from the current indoor mask ordinance which is in place until Oct. 31. Bordogna explained the differing mindset of west end residents.

“I believe that there is a different level of risk tolerance in Norwood and the west end in general and that most, but definitely not all, remain interested in having less restrictions in their area, even if it means more risk,” he said. “I continue to get this request from Norwood town officials, schools and residents.”

Franklin said she will weigh continuing the mask ordinance at the board’s Oct. 27 meeting.

For complete information on current COVID metrics in the county and state, as well as testing opportunities, COVID and flu vaccine clinics and more, go to sanmiguelcountyco.gov.