COVID-19 has affected the way we think about many things – how we shop for groceries, how often we wash our hands, and how we go about our workday, to name a few. For some Mesa County residents, the coronavirus has also influenced how they think about community, and the importance of neighborhood connections.
“We don’t have any reason not to be helping,” said Kristin Lynch, a Grand Junction resident. “That’s just what community is.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Lynch, her husband Sean and their three teenage children knew that the stay-at-home precautions might be especially hard on the mostly retired residents of their neighborhood. They quickly typed up a note with an offer of help and their contact information, then put one on each neighbor’s door or mailbox.
“We thought it was a good way for [our neighbors] to know we’re here and we’re always able to help,” she said, especially since the family still hadn’t met many of the people who live nearby, after moving in about a year ago. Although some neighbors have taken them up on their offer to help, even more have reached out to thank the Lynches and introduce themselves – a connection that, given the family’s hectic schedule, may have taken much longer under typical circumstances.
“These are unprecedented times, but it doesn’t really matter. These things still need to happen,” Lynch explained. “It’s important to show our kids that this isn’t hard, and this is only going to lead to greater things.”
Bruce Noble, the president of the homeowners’ association (HOA) in The Seasons neighborhood, said his community responded similarly. The HOA sent an email to all residents early on, asking people to reach out if they have needs or if they are available to help.
In a time when even a simple unmet need can be a source of stress, these neighborhood connections may be more important than ever. Noble shared the story of a man in the neighborhood who, despite his and his wife’s careful quarantining, became sick. When his wife realized they did not have a thermometer and she could not track one down in local stores, a neighbor simply dropped her extra one off on their doorstep. The man was able to confirm his fever, moved to self-isolation, and he and his wife emerged healthy afterward.
Some neighborhood efforts, like the Clifton Community Outreach (CCO) team, existed before COVID-19, but the virus has influenced how they function. The CCO team, with support from statewide foundation The Colorado Trust and in partnership with a coalition of community organizations called the Community Transformation group, works alongside other neighborhood residents to create positive community change. Previous projects have included an October 2019 community cleanup that collected 140 tons of trash from a one-square-mile neighborhood.
Since the outbreak started, CCO’s usual process of face-to-face conversations and neighborhood meetings has been put on hold. However, they still want to hear from neighbors about their ideas for the community, so have shifted to mostly phone calls for their outreach.
According to CCO member Kim McMurtrey, the group is available to help connect neighborhood residents with community resources, or assist them directly if they can. The CCO and several Community Transformation partners were also recently awarded a grant to offer emergency food delivery in the Clifton area, for people who are unable to leave their homes to shop or get to food pantries on their own.
Although it’s not the CCO’s creation, team member Elizabeth Christensen points to the Grand Junction Mutual Aid Facebook group as one of the most encouraging, community-minded developments she has seen during the COVID-19 outbreak. The group, now more than 14,000 strong, allows members to post about their needs, information on resources, and items they are willing to share.
“I’m hoping that with everything that has happened people will see they’re not the only ones struggling,” Christensen said. “I hope there is a sense of solidarity, that we’re all in this together, and if something like this were to happen again it won’t be so scary because we can get through it together.”
“Public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations. These populations can be as small as a local neighborhood, or as big as an entire country or region of the world.” (What is Public Health? – CDC Foundation)
Public Health’s Origins
Public Health as we know it came about in the early 19th century after previous centuries of popular myth that disease was caused by immorality or spiritual ailment. As medical advances were made, so grew comprehension of communicable diseases, their sources, and how to control them. The public also began to embrace the idea that disease and its spread could be controlled, and that it is a civic responsibility to do so.
As the public continued to support government’s role in health, its responsibilities grew to include disease prevention efforts, including sanitation, immunization, hygiene, and regulation. The concept of prevention has continued to broaden from its original scope of disease prevention to that of upstream prevention – working to change the conditions in a community that contribute to poor health – to improve outcomes and quality of life for the community as a whole.
The partnership between the medical community and public health is an important collaboration. Unlike medical professionals whose primary function is to treat illness on an individual basis, public health organizations primarily focus on community prevention—of a disease or its recurrence. Hospitals and public health departments work closely together to share information when outbreaks occur, slow the spread, and investigate the source of infection through contact tracing. These steps have been featured prominently during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this work and collaboration occur with every communicable disease, including influenza. Testing and immunization often occur as a collaboration between public health officials and medical professionals.
In addition to the vital partnership with the medical community, public health departments also work closely with residents and elected officials to recognize health trends, make policy recommendations, and implement solutions to support the overall health of the public.
Mesa County Public Health
With a staff of over 80 trained experts, Mesa County Public Health (MCPH) works continuously to improve residents’ quality of life and prevent disease outbreaks. They are charged with a wide variety of responsibilities, including testing and immunizations, policy recommendation and implementation, upstream prevention, communication, consumer protection, and education.
Local public health agencies (LPHAs) are formed by local county government, but they are a subdivision of the state. As such, MCPH is an extension of the State of Colorado and is charged with protecting its residents under the state’s authority. Because of this relationship with the state, MCPH also has the ability to create and enforce public health orders under Colorado law. If an order has been issued and a local entity is not following that order, best practices encourage any local public health department to first seek voluntary compliance. However, if the violation continues, a local public health director can bring civil and even criminal charges to ensure the public’s safety.
LPHAs are also tasked with community data collection and analysis, producing important documents such as the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA). A community assessment is required of health departments every 5 years and nonprofit hospitals every three years. Since 2018, MCPH and the nonprofit hospitals in Mesa County have collaborated to produce a single, comprehensive community report on a three-year cycle. This provides a current snapshot of the health status of Mesa County, brings attention to areas of concern, and fulfills assessment needs for all partners. In this document, state and local data paint a picture that guides the prioritization of efforts in the community. The 2021-2023 CHNA is scheduled for release this year. The 2018-2020 Health Assessment can be reviewed here.
In its consumer protection role, MCPH oversees restaurant and child care licensure and body art and swimming pool protocols/safety guidelines. MCPH also provides the backbone for services such as Nurse Family Partnership and community coalitions like the Community Transformation project, Child Care 8,000, and the Fruita Youth Initiative, to help bridge health gaps in the community and improve outcomes for its residents.
Since 1948, MCPH has provided a wide range of public and environmental health services to Mesa County. Its mission, to maintain and improve health through assessment of community health status, policy development to support effective programs, and assurance of high quality, effective education and service, is the driving force behind its programming and community collaborations.