Both physicians are extraordinarily dedicated and competent career public health officials. Fauci, as most of the country knows, is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Wallace is the executive director of the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment.
Both men place human lives and public safety first despite enormous pressure to cede to a political agenda and business interests in the midst of a pandemic that is killing tens of thousands worldwide.
The similarities between the two was clear to community activists in Weld who watched the White House press conferences on COVID-19 that still included Fauci.
“When I saw some of the stuff that was happening in the news conferences, I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s our Dr. Wallace, our Dr. Fauci right there,” said Rhonda Solis of The Latino Coalition of Weld County, as well as Hispanic Women of Weld and the local school board.
Where Fauci has to deal with President Donald Trump, Wallace has had to face Weld’s resolutely conservative Board of County Commissioners. The five-member board—which did not respond to a request for comment—has shown a Trumpian propensity for muffling critical warnings, downplaying danger, shrugging off the law, and twisting the truth.
But where Fauci was at least allowed to speak at those White House press conferences and made numerous TV news appearances, Wallace was effectively silenced after he declared a pandemic health emergency and public health order on March 16, mandating social distancing and prohibiting gatherings of more than 10.
Interview requests had to go through the court public information officer, Jen Fitch, and went nowhere. Emails that The Greeley Tribune obtained through a public records request show that Wallace was instructed to clear any health department press releases with Fitch lest the “message” go “haywire.” Drafts of the statements were sent to the board of commissioners.
In a chronology based on the emails that the Tribune reported, a draft of a March 17 release following Weld’s first COVID-19 death read, “We are requiring people to social distance in order to prevent future COVID-19 deaths and protect our workforce.”
One commissioner, Scott James, emailed that he had “a very distinct problem with the verbiage,” which he felt “simply throws fuel on the authoritarian fire.” James said “the verbiage” he would prefer was, “‘We strongly suggest people practice social distancing.” And that is exactly how it read in the final draft.
“If Jen wants to change the language in our draft to read ‘strongly suggest’ I’m not going to argue,” Wallace said in an email. “Sadly we’re using the brief window we have around a death that was given to this man by someone else to change behavior.”
Wallace learned the very next day that a worker at the JBS meatpacking plant had tested positive for COVID-19. The number quickly grew to 14. Wallace determined that nine of them had continued working while symptomatic.
Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order, but food industry workers were deemed essential even if they were treated as expendable.
By April 1, 191 workers had fallen ill at JBS. Wallace emailed JBS: “Public health and the hospitals are quite concerned the numbers of sick people working at JBS are growing fast and could become unmanageable for the health systems in the region. Their concern, and mine, is far too many employees must be working when sick and spreading infection to others.”
On April 4, Wallace ordered JBS to immediately institute social distancing in the plants and screen for workers with symptoms. He said that if the company failed to comply, “I will seek assistance from the District Attorney to consider criminal actions.”
Wallace enlisted the help of the state department of health and prepared to shutter the plant. JBS agreed to close down voluntarily for two weeks so it could deep-clean and improve safety. JBS emailed Wallace to propose they coordinate as a “team,” asking him to “refrain from press interaction to the extent possible.”
As JBS moved toward reopening the plant, the board of commissioners spoke of reopening the whole county despite the state shutdown. Wallace emailed the commissioners a warning.
“The relative ineffectiveness of actions and interventions to control transmission in Weld County as evidenced by our ongoing high case rate raise serious concerns and considerations for staging reopening,” Wallace wrote. “Weld County has not met the threshold for reopening of a downward trajectory of cases. Any relaxation of restrictions should be cautiously staged given the risk of even wider spread of the disease.”
He emphasized the need for more testing. The plant had so far conducted only for supervisors despite a pledge to test everybody.
“We expect case counts to go up but if we’re able to find people early, before they’ve spread it to others, we can get them back to work more quickly and avoid hospitalizations,” he wrote. “Without testing we’ll have people spreading COVID-19 widely in the community and making things worse.”
The next day, April 23, the commissioners went ahead and issued a “Safer Work” protocol. The accompanying statement summoned Trumpian logic to contend it was not violating the state’s “Safer at Home” order.
“Weld County Government is not opening any businesses, just as Weld County Government did not close any businesses,” the board said.
Even as the board defied the governor, Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer was seeking election to the state Senate. She was promising, “I’m running to be Jared Polis’ worst nightmare; an effective conservative champion who will challenge him and his liberal allies in the legislature every step of the way.”
On April 24, the same day the plant reopened, Wallace met with members of the board. He emailed them three days later to say he was stepping down.
“It’s clear that what’s best for me and my family is to move quickly toward a retirement date from service to Weld County Government,” Wallace wrote.
The chairman of the board of commissioners, Mike Freeman, shrugged, telling the press, “It really doesn’t concern me.” The commissioners no doubt were delighted the next day when Trump declared that the meat plants should remain open as essential businesses.
But others in Weld County felt as many of the rest of us would if Dr. Fauci finally had enough and resigned. Those who felt the loss of Wallace included Sylvia Martinez of the community advocacy group Latinos Unidos.
“One of our concerns was why aren’t we hearing from our Dr. Fauci?” Martinez said of Wallace. “And now we know why. Because he was muzzled. And given that, I think he did the best he could, what he was able to do.”
She spoke of 78-year-old Saul Sanchez, who had been the first of eight JBS workers to die. His task was to sharpen knives, and he had been kept on the job after he was symptomatic. He might have unknowingly passed the virus on to one worker and then another and another.
“He was sharpening knives and handing them back, and he was sick,” she said.
Wallace was still not talking to the press, but he did speak privately with Dr. Mark Johnson, executive director of public health in Jefferson County, which includes Denver. Johnson was left with the impression that Wallace had simply gotten to the point where he could not continue.
“He wasn’t able to do what was best for public health and he decided to quit,” Johnson said.
Johnson views Wallace as part of a great tradition of public health in Colorado that goes back to Dr. Florence Sabin. She was born in the state and returned intending to retire there after becoming a prominent physician and scientist, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She then became aware that public health in her native Colorado was in such sorry shape that 40 percent of the young men who sought to enlist in World War II were disqualified for physical reasons. She pressed for what became known as the Sabin Laws in 1948.
The statutes give public health officers wide-ranging powers such as Wallace exercised during an outbreak of swine flu involving college students in Weld County in 2009. He prevented the kids from boarding airplanes to far-flung homes and kept them quarantined and contained the infection, adding to a long list of successes.
“I have worked with him for 25 years and I have never known him to do anything without forethought and good science,” Johnson said. “He’s going to continue his medical work… He will survive. He will do great things.”
But Weld County has lost its Dr. Fauci and remains in the hands of a board Johnson describes as “pro-business and anti-science.”
“Every pandemic has its politics,” Johnson said. “This is the most partisan pandemic in the whole history of the world.”