Health director pleads for help

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Request comes after administrator limits work schedules

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Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery says he is in desperate need of help as the county vaccine program rolls out, so much that commissioners Jake Niece and Ben Tisdel stepped up to help answer phone calls and do whatever else is needed to alleviate his burden.

Kingery’s latest request for help came days after Ouray County Administrator Connie Hunt told local elected officials she has limited Kingery and Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd’s schedules, citing a need to cut back on their weekly hours amid the pandemic. Hunt addressed elected leaders from Ridgway and Ouray about the limitations, calling it a “personnel issue” during a joint policy group meeting last week.

In an address to commissioners sitting as the Board of Health on Tuesday, Kingery pleaded for patience from the public and said he and his staff are “doing the best we can.” He said he is overwhelmed and asked for a restructuring of incident command, which currently consists of Kingery and Boyd.

The hierarchy of the county’s emergency response to the pandemic has changed over time. Initially it was set up with Kingery as incident commander, overseeing the response. Kingery sought a more collaborative approach and requested a transition to a unified command structure, which resulted in a team making decisions about responses and included Ridgway Town Administrator Preston Neill and Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood in addition to Kingery and Boyd. This later changed and Kingery and Boyd are now the two members of unified command, charged with the highest level of planning for the ongoing emergency.

Kingery expressed frustration to commissioners about his ability to coordinate the next steps of the pandemic response without adequate resources.

“I need to be at the 30,000-foot level during this response to make sure that things are getting done that need to get done. And right now I’m just still in the weeds with day to day shoveling snow or putting down ice melt, some of the stuff that I don’t need to be doing, but I will,” Kingery told the board.

The department is inundated with phone calls about vaccinations and other pandemic-related questions, in addition to other demands.

Kingery said it would be better to have a structure where he can directly delegate tasks and have the employees to whom he can delegate those tasks.

The need, County Commission Chairman Ben Tisdel clarified after some discussion, is not more staff to push needles into arms, but help with logistics and planning.

“County health has been working really hard and it is time to give them more resources, not just pats on the back,” Niece said.

Hunt said when the county hires a new public information officer that person would be able to help with logistics. She said in the meantime other county staff can be reassigned, and she will also work on developing a list of volunteers and obtaining insurance coverage for them.

“We need help with phones right now,” Kingery said. “We need someone not just for an hour a day, we need someone full-on. Full job at public health, all day answering the phone. We need someone tomorrow at public health.”

Kingery said anyone can be trained for the phone position, but “obviously there’s a skill set involved with talking to angry people on the phone.”

Niece said he was willing to “jump in and help.”

“Let me know where you can plug me in,” Niece said, with Tisdel quickly following suit.

Hunt county, Ouray officials at a virtual joint policy group meeting last week that she’s asked Kingery and Boyd “to continue to do the fine work they’ve been doing but under a scheduled and reasonable workweek,” she said.

“This came about because Connie had called and told me the amount of overtime that Glenn and Tanner were hitting and she was freaking out,” outgoing County Commission Chairman Don Batchelder said during the meeting. “And my reaction was, these guys can’t do that, they need to be around this time next year. Basically they were burning themselves out.”

Kingery said he’s been working 70 to 80 hours each week during the pandemic. Boyd has repeatedly said during public meetings since March how many days they’ve been working in a row.

Hunt said they’ve been directed to focus on “rolling out vaccines, providing testing as needed and doing COVID-19 documentation as needed.” Those were already their primary focuses, with other responsibilities falling by the wayside, but some of those things, like grants and restaurant inspections, will continue to remain lower on their priority list, Kingery said.

Both Kingery and Boyd are salaried employees, but “because it’s a declared disaster, the county’s policy says overtime will be paid,” Hunt said. “It’s gotten to the point where we needed to intervene a little bit.” She said multiple times during the meeting that the matter was a “county personnel issue,” seemingly attempting to move on from the conversation quickly when Ridgway Mayor John Clark inquired for more details.

“I can’t get into it because it’s personnel-related, but I want to make sure that we take care of our people,” she said in an interview Monday. When asked when she became aware of the number of hours they’ve worked, she said, “I just know they put in a lot,” and mentioned receiving emails late at night.

During the meeting, Ouray City Councilor Ethan Funk asked what was being removed from Kingery and Boyd’s responsibilities to allow them to work fewer hours and ensure elected officials from other entities aren’t asking them to do work they’ve been told to put on the back burner.

“I don’t think we’re removing things from their plate,” Hunt said.

“We’re asking them to develop a schedule and a plan moving forward, and we’ve given them more resources with county staff and some volunteers as well,” she said. The county will need to purchase an additional insurance rider to cover certain volunteers, she said.

A county employee has been assigned to help answer hotline calls and perform data entry once more vaccines are available, Kingery said.

Hunt said four different county departments have made employees available to help with administrative tasks, and Emergency Medical Services paramedics are now assisting with testing.

Boyd agreed that the current structure for responding to the pandemic is unsustainable, but noted that he and Kingery have asked for support for months, and have been working extensive hours since it began.

“I don’t think anyone’s surprised by the hours we’ve been putting in, since we’ve been talking about it for the last 10 months,” he said during the joint meeting. “It is definitely not sustainable the way we’ve been doing it, which is why we’ve been asking for help from the beginning for operations, logistics and recovery, and all the pieces we’ve been asking for help for at these meetings.”

Several times this summer and fall Boyd and Kingery were directed to plan responses to the pandemic, including an ambassador program, a business grant program and a business recognition program, all of which were proposed and then shelved by local officials after they invested work. Policymakers ultimately instructed Boyd to purchase and distribute more than $25,000 worth of personal protective equipment to local businesses instead, which happened recently.

In order to meet the expectations for them to work fewer hours, “We’ll have to readjust our priorities and not spend a lot of time on recovery items like PPE,” Boyd said at the joint group. “We haven’t really reduced a lot of things we’re doing, we just have to reprioritize, so things may take longer.”

Clark raised concerns about the issue, and said “by being too rigid, you’re potentially causing more trouble.”

“I totally agree that we need to help Tanner and Glenn manage their time and not burn out but I’m sensing that saying they can’t have overtime is actually stressing them out almost as much as having extra hours,” Clark said. “They’re occasionally going to need to work overtime.”

He also said some individuals in the county have offered financial support to help respond to the pandemic, and asked if that would help cover the overtime costs.

Ouray City Councilor John Wood said the current emergency response structure wasn’t intended for a long-term situation like a pandemic.

“When you say 80 hours a week, that kind of comes with the territory in a salaried position in this sort of structure with the incident command and emergency system,” he said. “If we don’t like that and we need to adjust that, then we need to look at the manner in which we’re expecting them to execute those tasks and those roles.

“I think it’s a little disingenuous to turn around and say, ‘Well you guys you can’t work that many hours anymore, that’s just too many’ because yeah, it’s not right for them on a personal level, but if they’re needing those hours to get that job done and the structure isn’t working anymore because it’s gone on so long, we also need to look at the structure and not just at curtailing their hours.”

Hunt said they haven’t been barred from overtime completely, “we just have to schedule it and plan it out.”

“They are being paid overtime and as we move forward with rolling out more vaccines, I’m sure there will be more,” she told the Plaindealet “We’re not trying to minimize the overtime, the purpose of the meeting was how can we preserve our employees.”

In a different kind of emergency, the county would typically ask neighboring counties for help under existing memorandums of understanding, Boyd said. But since they’re in the same boat, it’s not an option.

“However, if we reach out to Montrose or San Miguel or Gunnison, every one of their emergency managers are putting in 60 to 80 hours a week and every one of their public health directors is putting in 70 to 80 hours a week,” Boyd said. “It’s just crazy right now and the vaccine has added more time, and not less time, for a lot of things.”

He Command structure is intended to have rotation among section chiefs to distribute work, but “the fact that Tanner and I are operations, planning, logistics and Unified Command for two municipalities and the county is a lot of work.”

Ouray County an uptick in cases recently, including 19 new cases in the past 14 days, bringing the total count to 174. Health officials don’t think the positive cases are related and have largely attributed them to a delayed increase from holiday gatherings and travel. As of Wednesday afternoon, the county’s positivity rate was 5.3 percent, much higher than the requirements for the county to return to the state’s “yellow” stage of reopening.

Regionally, there are 24 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Delta, Montrose and Gunnison counties, according to Kingery’s report Wednesday. Ouray County is continuing to provide free testing for anyone, with or without symptoms, and appointments can be made through curative.com.

On Jan. 4, the Food and Drug Administration issued an alert notifying the public of concerns about false negatives with the Curative swab tests. The agency warned a negative result doesn’t rule out COVID-19 and shouldn’t be used to make decisions about treatment alone.

Kingery told the group the tests are “not a get out of jail free card” or a “golden ticket,” and every virus test has its limitations. He said the county will continue to use the tests for now.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.