Park death raises community concern

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Related storyHome address: The parks of Cortez

When 52-year-old Herman Scott of Cortez lay down for the last time in the city’s Parque de Vida the night of Feb. 12, his death sent ripples of concern through the community.

First, there was shock that someone could freeze to death in the city when there was a free shelter nearby, a shelter to which Scott had gone numerous times before.

Then there were worries and fears over the widely disseminated fact that Scott had been infected with MRSA, Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, a contagious antibiotic-resistant germ, and that his infection might signal that the disease is becoming a broader danger to the public.

Health officials refused to discuss Scott’s particular situation because of privacy mandates for their profession. However, numerous other reliable sources confirmed that Scott had had MRSA and that this was widely known.

But there is absolutely no need to panic about MRSA, said Opal Stalker, public health supervisor with the Montezuma County Health Department who gave a presentation at the Cortez Public Library on Feb. 26.

Staph germs are everywhere and generally don’t pose a threat to healthy people. And with good cleaning and hand-washing techniques, disease transmission can be prevented, she said.

There were also rumors after Scott’s death that he had been kicked out of the Montezuma County Detention Center and shuffled among hospitals and agencies because no one wanted to pay for his treatment.

Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace said that was not the case and that Scott was being treated privately.

He said the jail has housed several inmates with MRSA as well as others with different infectious diseases. How each case is handled depends on the individual circumstances.

Sometimes jail officials will indeed try to get the person released early because of the danger of the germ spreading to other inmates in the jail, which is always at or near full capacity.

“We look at what they’re in the jail for,” Wallace said. “If it’s a municipal charge like trespassing, something minor, we’ll probably get them released early and get the charges either furloughed or get them home detention.

“We do not have a hospital ward with a full-time doctor.”

There is a full-time nurse on staff, he said, but the jail lacks the medical equipment to treat serious conditions.

In Scott’s case, Wallace said, “he was here on a municipal charge and he definitely had a situation which we could not risk spreading to the rest of the inmates, so we got with the city attorney and worked out a situation to get him out early.”

Scott was released to the care of relatives and was receiving medical treatment, Wallace said.

“But then he just chose one night to stay in the park.”

Inmates in jail on more serious charges would probably not be released early and would have to be treated for any medical condition, Wallace said. Colorado is one of the few states where the law says, if an inmate has a pre-existing or self-inflicted injury or disease, payment for treatment is the responsibility of the inmate. However, if the inmate needs medicine or treatment and doesn’t have money to pay, “we will pay for it but try to go after the inmate for the money later,” Wallace said.

Last year the jail had to arrange treatment for an inmate with a MRSA infection so serious it required intravenous antibiotics at a cost of about $40,000, Wallace said.

“We ended up paying for the whole bill because it couldn’t be proven that he had brought that in from outside,” he said. The county’s insurance policy did not cover the treatment.

Wallace said the jail can’t afford to screen everyone for MRSA, at $17 a test, but that officers are careful to make sure any inmate with a wound is seen by the nurse or doctor and treated. He emphasized that people with medical conditions who aren’t released early will be treated, even if they can’t pay.

“We will definitely pay for it and try to get the money later,” Wallace said.

Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said police had contacted Scott in Parque de Vida around 4:30 or 5 the evening that he died. They offered him a ride to his relatives’ but he refused, so they gave him a blanket. At some point in the night, Lane said, “he either lay down or fell on the cement,” which was cold, and died of hypothermia. “MRSA had nothing to do with his death,” Lane said.

He said the police check the parks at night looking for anyone who might be sleeping or passed out, although how frequently they check depends on the other calls they have.

“We sweep the parks every night,” Lane said, “but he was in a part where you had to almost walk up to him to see him.”

M.B. McAfee, chair of the board of directors for the Bridge Emergency Shelter, which operates in the Justice Building in Cortez’s Centennial Park, said Scott was a welcome client there.

“He was quiet and kind, he was always grateful for the meal, always said ‘thank you’ and ‘please’,” McAfee said.

“We will miss him.”

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From March 2009.