A Tale Of Two Counties – Los Alamos County Fights Fire And ‘Fights’ COVID

Los Alamos

The county’s approaches to fighting fire and fighting COVID reflect a “tale of two counties.” Examining these very different approaches could offer lessons for dealing with a range of local issues in the future.

The county’s response to the fire followed the basic principles of good governance and included: 

  • Rapid mobilization 
  • A proactive approach based on the best available evidence
  • The involvement of people with high levels of expertise
  • Reaching out for a range of help from outside
  • A well-coordinated approach across many agencies
  • Communications with the affected communities on a regular basis

So far, for which we are all grateful, no one has been injured or died as a result of the Cerro Pelado fire. Nor have any buildings in Los Alamos County been burned by the fire. 

COVID has, in many ways, been like a fire that alternated between simmering, flaring up, and  burning very hot. Yet, the county’s approach to COVID has been completely different than that taken to the fire, even considering that New Mexico has a single state authority for public health. The approach to COVID has not followed basic principles of good governance.

  • The county has been reactive on COVID, except on adult vaccines and, later, on testing
  • The county has made no use of its own Health Council to help address COVID 
  • The county until recently sought no expert help in addressing COVID 
  • There has been no systematic coordination on COVID across stakeholder groups and affected parties
  • Until recently, the County rarely communicated with residents on COVID; almost all  local “messaging” on COVID has come from two concerned local citizens.

The lack of a coherent, well-coordinated, and expert-led approach to COVID in Los Alamos County is despite the fact that COVID has had enormous health, educational and social consequences. It shut down our schools; took an important toll on many businesses; has infected 1 out of 7 county residents; caused 16 deaths; and, cost countless hours of lost work time. In addition, it is estimated that about 20% of those who were infected will suffer later health problems related to their infection. Moreover, while the fire has, thankfully, been contained, COVID looks like it will be here for some time to come.

The county noted recently that it would conduct a review of its response to the fire to see what could be learned for the future. The county should be sure to include in the review people who can highlight from our experience with fire the lessons that can be applied to a range of other areas of public management. In particular, the review must shed light on how the county can deal with future public health needs with more interest, greater commitment, and higher levels of expertise than it has manifest to date in our fight against COVID. The pandemic has shown that such an approach will be needed, at least until New Mexico moves to create local or regional health authorities, which appears unlikely anytime soon.

(Richard Skolnik has written this article in his personal capacity)