CUSTER COUNTY — Less than a month after the Board of Health for Custer County voted to go against state orders and lift its pandemic restrictions, all three of the members of the board have tested positive for COVID-19.
The three board members, who also serve as the county’s commissioners, voted on March 3 to lift COVID-19 restrictions, allowing businesses to operate at full capacity and no longer requiring people to wear masks.
The county says it received a letter from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) in response to its decision to lift restrictions. However, during the Board of Health meeting on March 10, the members reaffirmed their position on lifting the COVID-19 restrictions and discussed the metrics of that decision.
Since then, Reggie Foster, the public information officer for the county, says there has been no contact with the state or demands to follow state guidelines.
“Our relationship from the state, from our perspective, is good. They’ve made no threats to us. We’re doing all the things that we promised we would do for the county,” Foster said.
During the meeting on March 10, neither the Board of Health members nor many of the audience members were wearing masks. Six days later, one of the Board of Health members began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
“We’re not sure that that meeting is where it originated. We have no idea,” Foster said.
On March 17, the Board of Health held another public meeting where only two of the members participated in-person. The members and several members of the public, once again, did not wear masks.
On March 24, only one of the commissioners participated in-person for the regular meeting. Now, all three of the members have tested positive for COVID-19, something that was first reported by a Custer County community newspaper, the Wet Mountain Tribune.
“The fact that it is affecting the Board of Health members is irony. But they’re not surprised. It doesn’t change the reasons that they made the decisions to lift the state mandates,” Foster said.
None of the commissioners needed to be hospitalized, and Foster said they have isolated at home and are recovering.
The county is now reporting five positive COVID-19 cases and one hospitalization. Custer County says for now, it is monitoring the situation to see whether any other cases arise.
Members of the public who sat in on the recent meetings said they have not been contacted about any possible exposure. However, the county contends it is following contact tracing protocols.
“As soon as we found out we had a case, the Board of Health members, along with the public health agency, started reaching out to those who may have been in contact with the members, and then, of course, we did also reach out to the state,” Foster said.
Despite the board members testing positive, Foster said the members believe they made the right decision for the county and local economy and will move forward without COVID-19 restrictions in place.
In a press conference Monday, Gov. Jared Polis was asked, once again, about Custer County going against the state mandates.
“The whole state of Colorado has to follow the laws of Colorado, and they do. We embrace the direction of local control. We’ve certainly integrated from the very start working with our cities, our counties,” Polis said.
He said he is looking forward to turning over more control to localities over the next few weeks. The goal is to ease up on the state executive orders by April 16 and let municipalities take over.
The governor said it’s up to CDPHE to enforce the health restrictions he has put in place. CDPHE did not respond when asked about the communications between the state and the county.
Meanwhile, at the state Capitol, a bill to change the way local boards of health operate passed its third reading in the House Monday. The bill is a far cry from its original form — House Bill 21-1115’s original intent was to ban county commissioners from serving concurrently as members of a Board of Health, as is the case is Custer County.
The bill would have also allowed the members of the Board of Health to be removed from their positions for malfeasance.
However, after a rigorous debate, the bill has been significantly modified.
“The bill started trying to separate politics and public health, and it was doing that by removing county commissioners who are politicians right from public health boards. They would have still been the people appointing the public health boards, but there was too much pushback, and I wasn’t able to get the bill through in that form,” said co-sponsor Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins.
The new version of the bill now requires annual training for members of local boards of health. If it passes, CDPHE would come up with the metrics for the annual training.
The bill also offers local public health agencies help in recruiting board members.
Kipp considers the bill a good start, and she wants to see how the state’s 64 counties respond to it with participation in the training sessions.
“Are we at least getting to the point where everybody is starting with the same set of facts because that’s where I think we’re having issues right now is that people who have no education and no training in public health or making those decisions,” she said.
The bill still needs to make its way through the Senate.