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Liane Jollon named Outstanding Woman of the Year

Executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health led efforts to overcome COVID-19
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, was named Outstanding Woman of the Year at the Southwest Colorado Women in Business awards on Wednesday. (Patrick Armijo/Durango Herald)

Liane Jollon, who led San Juan Basin Public Health through the first global pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918, was named Outstanding Woman of the Year at the Southwest Colorado Women in Business awards on Wednesday.

“Imagine for 15 months as executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health you are living and breathing the responsibility of serving the health of your community during a 100-year pandemic. An emergency style workplace daily awaits,” said Beverly Capelin, co-founder of Deer Hill Expeditions, a wilderness and cultural exchange program for teenagers, in introducing Jollon to a crowd of about 150 at the Powerhouse Science Center.

Capelin noted from January through March, a group outside Jollon’s house protested public health orders that limited business operations, required face masks to be worn, and physical distancing to be maintained in an effort to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“Fifteen to 20 protesters harass you and judge you by carrying flags, banners and shouting. This is not a national news item. This is here in beautiful Durango, and you are the focus. How do you deal with that? She bred courage and dignity. As a result of these disturbing challenges, she stood her ground in a positive way, she held up the light,” Capelin said.

Capelin noted that during the course of the pandemic, Jollon completed a master’s degree and was presented with the American Medical Association’s Award for Outstanding Medical Service.

Since the Great Recession in 2008, Jollon said, local public health agencies across the country have lost 55,000 staff members, and suddenly they had to face a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Briggen Wrinkle, executive director of the Community Foundation, won the Community Ambassador Award. (Patrick Armijo/Durango Herald)

“There was no playbook for a coronavirus pandemic written anywhere,” she said. “So what did we do? Well, we have far too few resources. We lacked, we truly lacked, a plan. But we have a family base. We have public health, a great team. So we improvised. We innovated and we took risks at a level that none of us had done before.”

Jollon said public health agencies, out of necessity, adapted to the situation by acting much like startup companies rather than as health-service bureaucracy.

“ It was like building an airplane as you were flying in it, and I can tell you, if I didn’t have to get in an airplane I was building as I was flying, I would not,” she said.

“This is how entrepreneurs and startups work. It’s not how public service works. We’re trained to be evidence-based. We're trained to take our time, which means to carefully think about best practices and peer reviewed research.”

Instead, COVID-19 required something different from public health agencies, she said.

“COVID-19 demanded fast-paced, high-consequence decisions while we juggled imperfect, incomplete and always-changing information,” she said.

Without the dedication and performance of the team at SJBPH, Jollon said she would not be receiving the Outstanding Woman of the Year Award at the Southwest Colorado Women in Business event, which was organized by Ballantine Communications Inc., owner of The Durango Herald.

“For 16 months, I've witnessed leadership from my team. They showed planning, learning, adjusting, changing altogether when they needed to, whatever it took. They brought their best selves to this challenge again and again,” she said.

In a video introduction before she addressed the crowd, Jollon noted La Plata County had lower case rates than the state average throughout the pandemic. La Plata County schools had in-person learning options, and the summer 2020 tourism season was stronger than anticipated.

Both the number of passengers at Durango-La Plata County Airport and the occupancy rates of hotels in the county were among the highest in the state during the course of the pandemic.

Jollon also recognized Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian scientist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who developed the process of in vitro-transcribed MRNA for protein therapies that made development of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines possible.

Jollon said Karikó “was laughed out of every room” when she presented her research in the United States and Europe, but it eventually was picked up by BioNTech, and formed the basis for the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines.

“If she hadn't been picked up by BioNTech, if she hadn’t continued to persevere, when door after door was biting her in the face, we would not be gathering in this room tonight,” she said. “So thank you to our nontraditional leaders, who we don’t expect to bring it. They bring it, they bring it faster, they take risks, they make it happen.”


Southwest Colorado Women in Business awards

In addition to Liane Jollon, eight other women were recognized Thursday at the Southwest Colorado Women in Business ceremony held at the Powerhouse Science Center:

Rachel Landis, Agricultural Award.

Julie James Ott, Business Owner Award.

Briggen Wrinkle, Community Ambassador Award.

Elizabeth Kinahan, Creative Industries Award.

Kerisha Small, Education and Child Care Award.

Sarah Tescher, Health and Wellness Award.

Char Day, Nonprofit Volunteer Award.

Sarah Tingey, Professional Award.

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