El Paso County Public Health is perhaps best known as a place where flu shots are given and as an agency that inspects restaurants.
But the department also provides a broad spectrum of services and works with a range of businesses to address safety issues and keep the workforce healthy.
Governed by a volunteer board of health, which is responsible for developing public health policies, the department works to promote health throughout the county through direct services and prevention and control of disease, and to assure environmental health by enforcing regulations and providing education to businesses and individuals.
Battling the flu
Influenza is widespread in Colorado. As of Dec. 29, 596 people have been hospitalized statewide since the 2018-19 flu season began in October. That compares with 1,472 hospitalizations during the same period last season. In El Paso County, 58 flu cases have been diagnosed since the season began.
Prevention through shots is the first line of defense against the flu, said Kristi Durbin, public health nurse with the public health department’s immunization program.
The department offers a walk-in clinic from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays at 1575 Garden of the Gods Road. Flu shots also are given by appointment Mondays and Wednesdays through Fridays between 8 a.m.-noon and 1-3:30 p.m.
“It’s not too late to get a flu shot,” Durbin said. “We recommend it as long as flu is circulating in the community. Even if you do get the flu, you’re less likely to have a severe case.”
The department also conducts flu vaccination clinics at organizations throughout the county, including union offices, schools, churches and businesses. Most larger businesses host these clinics at the beginning of the season, but “if employers continue to contact us, we would still go out,” Durbin said.
The department provides information to businesses as well to help prevent the spread of the flu and other communicable diseases. “We encourage policies around sick leave that really do encourage employees to stay home” when they’re sick, said Kimberly Pattison, program manager with El Paso County’s communicable disease/tuberculosis program.
To limit the spread of the disease, “we recommend folks remain home for 24 hours after no longer having a fever without the use of fever-reducing medications,” she said. That’s because the flu is easily spread through coughing or sneezing and remains viable on surfaces for some time. “If you’re near someone who is ill, you’re at pretty high risk.”
Thus far, the county’s flu cases haven’t peaked.
“Last year, we had a pretty severe season, with a total of 489 hospitalized cases,” Pattison said. “This year, they’ve started to increase a little later.”
The general pattern for the flu season is activity that kicks off in October, peaks in January or February and dwindles in May. But the flu’s exact progress is unpredictable, Pattison said. The public health department keeps track of flu hospitalizations and also keeps an eye on potential outbreaks at nursing homes and schools.
“We are able to respond and assist with investigation of outbreaks,” Pattison said.
The department also tracks other types of communicable diseases, provides HIV testing and counseling, and offers other types of immunizations such as Hepatitis A and B and tetanus.
“We are doing surveillance on over 60 diseases,” Pattison said, adding the department tracks illnesses that are public health priorities because they are rare or “because we can do a lot to prevent them. A lot of our work is on the preventive side of things.”
For example, if a case of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is reported, the department would interview the patient and make sure treatment is accessible. The department works with businesses and agencies such as nursing homes and child care associations to educate them about which diseases are reportable and how to screen for and manage diseases such as tuberculosis.
Norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness known as the “cruise ship virus,” also spreads easily from person to person during the winter season, Pattison said. Acute symptoms last a couple of days, but patients can remain infectious for a period of time after symptoms abate.
“It’s an illness that we have quite a bit of interaction with,” she said.
The department keeps track of outbreaks and conducts tests at locations such as long-term care facilities.
“We also work with them on what precautions they’re taking to limit outbreaks as much as possible,” Pattison said.
The department also partners with businesses whose employees travel internationally to provide needed vaccinations.
Focus on Southeast
The Southeast region of Colorado Springs, where there is limited access to health services such as primary care, is a focus of efforts by the public health department.
“We have been working in the southeast for a number of years, largely because it’s a community that has a lot of potential and momentum for improvement,” said Aubrey Day, healthy environment planner. “Health outcomes in that area, for a number of reasons, are disparate in the sense that people there are struggling a bit more to be healthy and reach their full potential.”
The department operates a Women, Infants and Children clinic five days a week at its Garden of the Gods Road headquarters and last year opened a satellite clinic at 2948 E. Fountain Blvd. The clinic offers immunizations by appointment, breastfeeding support, a nutrition program, education and referrals for other services.
The majority of staff at the southeast WIC clinic are drawn from the surrounding community, said Mina Liebert, El Paso County public health planner.
“We are increasing the number of workers at that location,” Liebert said. “A lot of the work Public Health does is to enhance and elevate some of the work that is happening on the community level. … We are providing resources and the clinic in a more accessible location. Overall, we look at it from a prevention standpoint and we try to look at the preventative measures that we as an agency can implement in order to reduce the level of health care needs.”
The public health department partners with organizations such as El Pomar Foundation, the RISE Coalition, the Colorado Health Foundation and the Solid Rock Community Development Corporation to help improve access to health care, life skills and employment opportunities in the area.
While the department does provide some direct services, its primary role is to leverage funding, collect data and evaluate the effectiveness of programs, and connect partners. “Our work is indirect,” Day said. “We want to help support an environment that allows businesses to thrive and that also improves community health.”
A major function of the public health department’s environmental health division is preventing foodborne illness through inspection of the county’s more than 2,700 licensed food vendors, ranging from restaurants to grocery stores.
The division also works with a range of businesses and organizations including child care centers, schools, body artists, septic and wastewater systems and public pools and spas to promote hygiene and control of pathogens.
“We collaborate with those industries and provide education over regulation as best we can, and we assist them to help educate new staff and answer ongoing questions,” said Aaron Doussett, water quality program manager. “We provide training and an opportunity for industry involvement with our technical advisory groups for body art and the septic industry.”
The department invites industries to meet three or four times a year to talk about questions they may have and to educate them about regulation changes.
“In the event that they have a question in any business where we are a subject matter expert, e.g., hygiene, best practices or health-related questions, we field a lot of those questions,” Doussett said. “We provide information to them to help them be proactive in their control of any kind of health-related concern or pathogenic control.”