One of the fastest growing, most diverse Colorado counties launched a health department with a Health Equity and Strategic Initiatives Division.
Adams County, Colo. — Sitting near a podium where hours before a grand opening ceremony for the Adams County Health Department was held, Monica Buhlig reflected on her background that spans from philanthropy to public health.
“And in each place I learned more and more about the effects it was having on people’s health,” she said.
Buhlig will lead the health equity and strategic planning division of the newly formed department as director.
This was the result of the former Tri-County Health Department, which was disbanded late last year, and Adams, Arapaho, and Douglas counties formed their own departments.
Buhlig’s team, with a staff of 26 people, said a community health assessment last year for Adams County helped guide his team on how to go about the first steps of his plan.
The assessment found that top issues include food insecurity, housing instability and mental and behavioral health.
But aside from that, he believes the pandemic has increased the separation between public health and the citizens they serve.
“Public health did a phenomenal job reaching people with evidence-based practices. But as the pandemic progressed, we were losing connections and leaning on community organizations to reach people. I reminded everyone how it’s done,” she said.
understanding a diverse community
According to state demographers, Adams County is one of the first Denver metro counties with a majority of the population being people of color. It has one of the state’s largest Hispanic populations and has seen the state’s highest growth for that group.
Amid the height of the pandemic, Adams-County-based organizations worked to provide access to COVID-19 vaccines through clinics as well as handing out tests.
The Denver metro’s Hispanic population showed significantly fewer people receiving the COVID-19 vaccine than white, non-Hispanic people, with some advocates saying lack of access was among the factors.
Because of this, Buhlig felt it was important to enlist the help of key community leaders throughout the county to understand how the people they serve would like to receive assistance or general information.
“We need to consider how do we get information to the people who need it, how do we listen to voices that are traditionally and currently not on the table?” Buhlig explained. “What are we hearing as far as the plans we put in place for our community health implementation plan? And also what are the changes that we need to make as systems that serve communities What do we need to change within ourselves to better ourselves? And is that door knocking? Yes. Sometimes it can be us. Sometimes it can be one of the trusted organizations because there’s a community leaders who know the community best.”
In addition to the list of initiatives that his team is working to launch, Buhlig hopes to complete the formation of a community advisory board made up of community leaders from across the county.
The next six months in particular, he said, will be about building community connections and developing a community health implementation plan.
“We have to learn from all these community members, go to reliable sources, learn from them, and then we have to design accordingly,” she said.
Different regions mean different solutions
Adams County extends from Westminster to the Eastern Plains. According to Colorado state demographers, it has a population of approximately 520,000 after an increase of 78,000 residents over the past decade.
Buhlig acknowledged that the sheer size of the county means that his team will have to work with different communities like Thornton, Brighton, Commerce City and Westminster (to name a few) to tailor their individual solutions.
“…and we have a rural community that experiences various disparities with respect to access. There are very different reasons for that access challenge,” Buhlig said. “…food security will have very different solutions in rural Adams County than in Thornton, and we need to recognize that. And so we’ll take the same holistic approach and tailor it to each of those communities.”
Arapahoe and Douglas counties have also formed their own health departments, seemingly taking their own approaches.
A spokesperson for the Arapahoe County Department of Public Health told 9NEWS they have a health equity community engagement specialist.
The Assistant Director of Community Health for the Douglas County Department of Health explained that their services are provided through a ‘health equity lens’.
“While we do not have a health equity team, our health department’s services are provided through a health equity lens, based on the specific needs of our communities and social determinants of health such as financial, housing, transportation and food insecurity. Create barriers to accessing health care services, Larson said in a statement.
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