Thomas Butts, MSc, REHS has been a NEHA member for 36 years. He currently works on environmental health programs as a consultant and as an hourly employee for two local health agencies in Colorado. Tom was appointed to the Colorado State Board of Health in March of 2019, and he will soon take a seat on the NEHA Board of Directors as Second Vice-President. Prior to his retirement in 2017, he spent his career with Tri-County Health Department, the local public health agency that serves 3 counties and over 1.5 million people surrounding Denver. Throughout his career, Tom has served in leadership positions with many environmental health organizations, including as a regional representative, treasurer and then president of the Colorado Environmental Health Association (CEHA). Because of his extensive experience, and numerous connections across the state, Tom offers a broad overview of the environmental health response to COVID-19 in Colorado.
NEHA: How has your work changed since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Colorado?
Butts: My work before COVID-19 was partially what you might consider special projects and partially EH program work. The special project tasks included contributing to county oil and gas regulation from an environmental public health perspective, and providing content in the areas of air quality, water quality, noise, and odor in situations where huge changes are occurring at the state level to increase regulation focused on the reduction of impacts to public health and the environment. This statute-driven change also allows local government to go above state standards for local land-use related issues (creating more of a floor than a ceiling). Another task was to support the development of a county climate action or “Climate Smart” plan that focused on mitigation of the impacts that are or are likely to occur in the community. Again, complimentary state-level activity on greenhouse gas reduction is also underway.
The second line of work was supporting an Environmental Health Services group during an EH Director transition which included engaging with EH staff and administrative support for EH programs, a review of general program practices and fee setting processes, and providing program guidance as needed (e.g. implementing new elements of a food safety scoring and rating system).
As COVID-19 emerged, my focus became much more about supporting the EH professional staff working with regulated entities (retail food, childcare centers, body art facilities) to ensure they understand and are complying with, local and state-issued public health orders. I am also supporting the process of safe food donation to community food banks or sales of produce, meat, and dairy directly from regulated facilities within the new guidelines. I have been supporting the role of EH in collaboration with legal counsel and law enforcement in fielding and responding to complaints about businesses violating public health orders.
NEHA: Colorado is a state with numerous rural communities. What challenges do EH professionals face when serving and protecting rural communities during this crisis?
Butts: The challenges I have observed come in a couple of forms. The local environmental health system in Colorado is county-based. For a smaller county that often means that there is only one environmental health professional employed or in some cases the state is the service provider. This means there is little to no surge capacity or backup available in less populated counties. Parts of Colorado are also heavily impacted by tourism in the winter and summer. This creates staffing challenges, often addressed by seeking some seasonal staff or shifting staff duties. In the winter, tourists flock to mountain resorts in rural areas, while in the summer tourism is more broadly spread. Not surprisingly, balancing the demand for increased summer retail food special events and a short building season for onsite wastewater systems is a challenge.
Before COVID-19, discussions have raised the concept of developing a system/resource that would be available on a short-term fill-in basis during staff changes or illness. This has occurred when mutual aid was called into play during localized large wildfire and flood disasters over the past 10+ years but has not been formalized for non-emergent situations. What is unusual is that COVID-19 has stretched every agency as EH professionals are pulled into incident response roles and public information roles. This had required that agencies implement their Continuity of Operations Plans to reprioritize local activities often organization-wide.
The Colorado Directors of Environmental Health is a key resource for the EH professionals across the state. The organization has members from 38+ organizations that execute EH programs in many of the 64 counties in Colorado– from 1 person organizations the largest in the state. The group actively supports the profession via quarterly meetings and an active Google group where COVID resources and information has been shared.