Pitkin County Public Health director Karen Koenemann announced plans to resign, effective Dec. 4. She has served as director since the department’s creation in early 2017, and is leaving this job to work for a health nonprofit in her home state of Alaska.
Koenemann has helmed the department through months of coronavirus response. She says the pandemic helped her think about what is meaningful in life – which pulled her to the new job – but also said the past few months have been challenging for public health officials everywhere.
“At the director level, we have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders,” she said. “I care about the implications of the decisions I make. I care about the impact of those decisions on people’s lives. That’s been really hard. That responsibility has weighed pretty heavily on me throughout the pandemic.”
Koenemann's leaving comes as the state has seen a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases. The Pitkin County Health Department also recently implemented strict guidance for informal gatherings as a way to curb the spread locally. In a call with reporters on Wednesday, Koenemann lauded the performance of her public health staff, assuring that the county is in good hands with a crew that has worked overtime in its pandemic response.
“We have brought science and data to decision making,” she said. “We have always been grounded in being responsible for implementing the best that we know to date. They are resilient and can use failures as opportunities to learn.”
Koenemann says she had been considering a move to the philanthropic sector, and to her home state, for a long time. But in leaving public health, she “grieves” for the system state and nationwide, citing harassment and threats.
The county expects to name an interim public health director next week, according to Jon Peacock, Pitkin County manager. Koenemann gave “plenty of notice” and a thoughtful transition plan, he says, adding that the county will likely look across the country for a replacement.
“This is our first experience with a pandemic of this nature,” Peacock said. “In normal times, this is an attractive community to come to. For how stretched public health staff are across the nation, this could be a challenging time to be out and looking.”
Peacock says the department would also consider internal candidates.