by Marissa Lorenz
Sitting as the Board of Health, Grand County Commissioners appointed a new director of Public Health at their most recent regular meeting.
On Tuesday, the Board of Health appointed Abbie Baker, who currently serves as deputy director and epidemiologist of Public Health, to assume the role of director, following the departure of long-time director Brene Belew-LaDue on Friday, January 15.
“We’re very excited to have Abbie come aboard,” stated Board Chair Merrit Linke upon passage of the resolution.
Baker is well-known in the community and is a might-as-well-be Grand County native. She moved to Columbine Lake with her family in 1989 and attended Grand Lake Elementary School. She continued her early education in the East Grand School District and is a graduate of Middle Park High School.
After graduation and having experienced time as an exchange student in France, Baker says that she took a couple years off from school, “figuring out what [she] definitely didn’t want to do.” Eventually, she enrolled in some classes at Red Rocks Community College before transferring to what is now Colorado Mesa University where she initially thought to complete a pre-med program.
Ultimately, Baker graduated from Mesa with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology/biology sciences and started her professional career as an environmental health specialist at the Mesa County Department of Public Health.
Life would then take her, her husband, and their new daughter to the Front Range for a few years, at which point she decided to pursue a master’s degree in public health.
After working at Mesa County Public Health, I really liked the realm of public health. I liked the people. I liked the mission,” she explains. “I really like the big-picture nature of public health.
“Medical is very singular, and each person is unique. But public health is about bigger thinking.
It’s very vast. Like–anyone who is struggling with housing will have difficulty focusing on saving for college, or contributing to a 401(k), or other things outside of their basic needs. Pretty much everything relates back to the health of the individual in the community.”
While Baker completed work on her master’s degree through Benedictine University, with concentrations in health education and promotion and epidemiology [the study and analysis of patterns and risk factors of health and disease conditions within a specific population, in order to influence policy and shape preventative healthcare], her husband, Derek, found a job that would bring them back to Grand County in 2015, at which time they settled in Kremmling.
“We vacationed here often,” Baker says, “and we both had a goal to be in Grand County.”
But finding work in her field proved difficult. And though she completed her internship at Grand County Public Health with Belew-LaDue as her proctor, she found her first post-master’s job back on the Western Slope as health program manager of Delta County.
It wasn’t until early 2018 that she would be able to return to Grand County as a community health educator with GC Public Health.
The Bakers are now settled in their home in Hot Sulphur Springs. Their two children are students at Granby Elementary. They enjoy fishing and camping and other outdoor recreation, “when possible.” They love hockey. (Their son is in the Fraser hockey league.) They like to “bike, hike, and play with the dogs and at the lakes.” A special treat is when they can return to Grand Lake for pizza and ice-cream. And of course, they “like listening to the elk bugle in [Rocky Mountain National Park] in the fall.”
In the nearly three years Baker has been at GC Public Health, she has taken on increasing responsibilities, serving subsequently as program manager, administration/communications director, epidemiologist, and deputy director.
Baker recognizes ongoing challenges of public health, especially community education–“People often don’t understand what Public Health and epidemiology is. They don’t know what we do.”–and the more recent challenges of COVID-19–“The biggest concern is getting to the ‘finish line’ of the pandemic. Vaccine distribution has been difficult, for a myriad of reasons.
“We need to make sure we can get it rolled out, while ensuring that communication and collaboration
is still effective. We need to keep providing accurate info about COVID-19 as soon as we can get
it out and ensure that we have a good understanding from both staff and the community.”
But amidst the seemingly overarching worry of COVID-19, Baker is also hopeful. “I really look forward to continuing to work for my community–it’s home!,” she exclaims.
“It’s the people I grew up with and our new neighbors. We love it here. I look forward to the opportunity to keep working for this community, helping it through the pandemic, helping support a robust recovery, and getting back to ‘business as usual,’ where we can focus on our programs for the underserved residents.
“I’d always hoped I’d be able to step into the director position. I wish it were under different circumstances,” Baker concludes, referring to recent tensions in the community that may have contributed to Belew-LaDue’s resignation. “I only hope I can do an honorable job stepping into her shoes. So many people are grateful for what she’s done for Public Health during her tenure. I hope I can help maintain the same quality of public health in Grand County.”
But the community that knows her already has faith in Baker’s dedication and ability to lead the county in public health concerns.