Boulder Theater, with “Stay safe Boulder” posted in the marquee, as seen on March 17, 2020, in downtown Boulder. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Jeff Zayach, who as executive director of Boulder County Public Health oversees COVID-19 response in a metro Denver county of 326,000 residents, plans to retire.
The 54-year-old Broomfield resident started as the BCPH director in 2008. He plans to leave the post in April, around his 55th birthday, he said. Zayach announced his retirement to colleagues in an Oct. 11 email obtained by Newsline.
Zayach had been planning before the pandemic to retire, and the timing of his departure was not determined by the pandemic, he told Newsline in an interview. However, the pandemic has taken a toll, and he looks forward to enjoying more quality of life.
“The stress with COVID is by far the most stress I’ve ever been challenged with in my career,” Zayach said. “I’ve certainly lost a lot of sleep.”
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He has not been targeted with the death threats and similar attacks some other public health officials have experienced in Colorado and across the country. But he has received threats. After BCPH issued an extraordinary set of restrictions in late September in response to an alarming rise in new COVID-19 cases, Zayach bore the brunt of the public’s frustrations.
“I received 100 calls in the first two days of people just swearing at me,” he recalled.
Yet Zayach remains idealistic about his chosen profession. He and other public health professionals believe in the value of helping members of the community maintain good health and quality of life.
“As soon as I got into public health, I knew it was where I belonged,” Zayach said. “People who work in public health are in it because their hearts are in it. That’s what has been so rewarding.”
Pursuing his heart’s passion has been especially rewarding in Boulder County, where elected officials, public servants and members of the community have offered BCPH great support, he said.
“Boulder County is a great place to work for a public health director,” Zayach said. “I think it is the best place to work in the entire state.”
Gregg Thomas, president of the Boulder County Board of Health, is expected to lead the process to recruit Zayach’s successor.
Zayach, who grew up in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, started working at BCPH as a summer mosquito technician. He later was engaged full time in the agency’s food safety program and then its air and water quality program. He became the Environmental Health Division manager before ascending to agency director.
Among the agency’s notable accomplishments of which Zayach is proud are a syringe exchange program, effective use of revenues from a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, successful response to the September surge of COVID-19 among young people in Boulder, and productive partnerships with local law enforcement, the University of Colorado Boulder, area schools, and elected leaders in the county.
“This community comes together like no other community I’ve ever seen,” Zayach said.
Zayach announced his retirement as the state, including Boulder County, began to see a steady rise in COVID-19 cases. The gravity of the situation was emphasized Friday when Gov. Jared Polis during a news briefing announced that hospitals should begin preparing for a surge in COVID patients. “These are our darkest days as a state,” Polis said. By announcing his retirement well before he actually steps down, Zayach said he wanted to give BCPH plenty of time to transition to new leadership.
Zayach said the choice between protecting the community and avoiding harm to its constituents is often “a no-win situation.” Some public health decisions, such as social distancing orders, are necessary to protect the safety of community members, but they can adversely affect businesses to the point they can’t recover, and such decisions can also result in hardships for students, parents, and members of the workforce. Public health officials like Zayach have regularly had to make such decisions since March.
“It takes an incredible toll on every single one of us,” he said. “It’s been incredibly difficult to be faced with those kinds of decisions for all of us in public health … It weighs on my mind every single night.”
He encounters people who don’t believe the coronavirus is real, or that it is less serious than it is, partly due to “mixed messages” at the national level, he said.
“They make personal choices that put the entire community at risk, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” Zayach said.
But Zayach is optimistic about the state’s ability to get past the pandemic.
“There is hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Zayach said. “But we have to work together to get there.”
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