JCPH Executive Director Johnson reflects on 30-year career

Johnson retiring on Oct. 2 after COVID-19 delay

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/22/20

After 30 years and one COVID-19 pandemic while at the helm of Jeffco’s public health department, Dr. Mark B. Johnson is finally retiring from the JCPH. He had originally planned to retire in June …

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JCPH Executive Director Johnson reflects on 30-year career

Johnson retiring on Oct. 2 after COVID-19 delay

Posted

After 30 years and one COVID-19 pandemic while at the helm of Jeffco’s public health department, Dr. Mark B. Johnson is finally retiring from the JCPH.

He had originally planned to retire in June but said he decided to stay to continue to guide the county through the COVID-19 pandemic and set it up to be in a good position to manage it after his departure.

“At that time I did not feel like I could leave,” Johnson said. “We were gearing up on incident command and cases were increasing and things were looking bad.”

Johnson said that he decided to set a date to retire now because the overall COVID-19 situation had significantly improved with the rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths all significantly increasing.

Still, he acknowledges that concerns about what will happen with COVID-19 in the fall as schools continue with their reopening and the flu returns had left him feeling “a little hesitant to leave to some degree.”

However, Johnson says that the health department had set up a good program for dealing with COVID-19, including the recent establishment of an Office of Pandemic Response staffed with new employees who will handle contact tracing and other activities related to controlling the pandemic, that left him feeling that it was now appropriate to step away.

“I think the health department is in pretty good order as far as getting ready for things,” he said. “The question is will residents do what we ask of them to make sure that they keep social distancing and wearing masks to keep bringing those cases down?”

Search for new director underway

With Johnson’s Oct. 2 retirement date now set, Jefferson County’s Board of Health has started the process of recruiting a new executive director. But in the interim, four long-time division directors will serve as a leadership board that will provide strategic direction for the public health of the county.

Because it is required by state law for county health departments to have a medical director on staff, Johnson will continue to serve in this role until the executive director position is filled.

Following his retirement, Johnson will serve as the elected president of the Colorado Medical Society, which is the largest organization of physicians in the state.

Public health fights past and present

His departure, however, means the end of a long and eventful tenure at JCPH that has seen Johnson become involved in everything from efforts to improve air quality in Jeffco to advocacy surrounding the safety of Rocky Flats.

Johnson said some of his biggest accomplishments include helping to establish the Colorado School of Public Health, which he said has dramatically improved the education level and professionalism in Colorado, and getting a rule enshrined in state statute that there must be a chief medical officer in the state health department if the director does not have a medical background.

“I think for my career one of the things that I am very proud about is that since I graduated from school to now as a nation we have cut in half the rates of smoking which has saved millions of lives,” he said. “I can’t take credit for all of that but as a member of the public health establishment that has worked hard on that through the years I am very proud of that.”

But while Johnson has faced his share of challenges, he said the criticism he has faced over the last six months has made them the hardest of his career.

“Every day I get emails and telephone calls telling me that I am ill-equipped to be the director and that I am breaking the law and breaking the constitution and that I am a joke,” Johnson said. “There have been death threats and other threats against my body. That has been hard.”

However, he said he wants it to be known that those threats from the public have nothing to do with his decision to retire, which he was already planning to do before the pandemic.

“I have had complete support from the board and both parties in the county commissioners,” he said. “They haven’t always agreed with me and we have had some discussions about things but I have felt full cooperation and support throughout this pandemic response.”

So what future public health challenges does Johnson have his eye on as he prepares to step away from JCPH? Climate change, which he said could lead to increased numbers of fires, floods and even pandemics.

“I think we are going to see more novel viruses as more forests around the world are destroyed and we encroach on more wildlife that we have not been exposed to before and get exposed to more viruses and bacteria,” he said. “And I think all of that ties into the devastation that climate change is causing.”

As he steps away, Johnson said he wants his last message to Jeffco residents to be one of gratitude.

“I would like the citizens to know how fortunate I feel that I have been able to work here,” he said. “And I would like them to know how hard their county staff work for them not just in the health department but across the county. Jeffco residents are getting their money’s worth in the services that are provided and I really wish I could do more to let the citizens know that.”

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