In November 2018, most people in Colorado were focused on the race for governor and attorney general or on the political fight to win control of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, one of the most crucial political races in Southern Colorado was overlooked — the contest to become El Paso County’s next coroner.
Nobody knew it at the time, but that coroner would become a critical figure in Colorado’s battle against a global pandemic.
In Colorado, so long as you’re at least 18 years old, a registered voter, and you’re not a felon, you can run for coroner.
Colorado doesn’t require someone running for coroner to have medical training beyond what you’d learn in a high school biology or anatomy class.
Republican Dr. Leon Kelly won the 2018 race with 65 percent of the vote against Democrat Chauncey Frederick. Frederick, a military veteran and diesel mechanic for the Army, had no medical degree or experience as a physician. Kelly, on the other hand, is a certified forensic pathologist and a fully licensed physician. He’s performed thousands of autopsies and has over 15 years of experience investigating causes of death and assisting with homicide investigations.
“What I have a massive problem with is the thought that someone completely unqualified could have this job,” Kelly said Thursday evening at a Republican meeting in Colorado Springs. “There’s literally no way that someone who is not a physician could walk into my office and do what I do every single day.”
Kelly assumed his elected position as coroner in 2019 and now serves as the chief medical examiner for El Paso County, leading a team of toxicologists, investigators and medical examiners who together determine the cause of death for those who die unexpectedly or under suspicious circumstances. They assist law enforcement in criminal investigations and speak with grieving loved ones and families of the deceased.
Based in Colorado Springs, Kelly’s coroner’s office is the largest and busiest in Colorado, performing autopsies for 20 counties across the state. At the height of the pandemic, Kelly took a leading role as the deputy medical director for El Paso County Public Health and gave guidance on how to prevent outbreaks while safely opening businesses and schools.
Because Colorado has a shortage of medical examiners and because most of the coroners aren’t physicians, Kelly says many bodies from across the state are brought to his office to have autopsies performed. The pandemic dramatically increased the number of autopsies for the coroner’s office.
In 2021 alone, Kelly said his office will have performed over 1,400 autopsies, a grim new record.
“Roll the Dice” or Get the Vaccine
Although COVID-19 has a higher mortality rate for older people and those with pre-existing health conditions, Kelly said it’s difficult to predict who the virus will kill.
“There are these weird, random circumstances where it kills people that it shouldn’t and then doesn’t kill people that it should,” he said. “It’s almost like the perfect virus.”
Kelly warned against misinformation that spreads fear and distrust of vaccines. If not for vaccines, he explained, we’d still live with the threat of polio and smallpox.
“You have two options,” he said. “You either get the virus, roll the dice and see how you do. Or you cheat like we’ve learned to do for the last hundred years, and we get your body to be able to defend itself against something it hasn’t seen yet.”
Speaking with the Colorado Times Recorder, Kelly said that a lower vaccination rate in rural communities is resulting in a rise of COVID cases in those areas.
Kelly compared this pattern to the flow of drugs, like heroin and the opioid fentanyl, flowing outward from cities into rural areas. Earlier in the pandemic, a majority of COVID cases came from large cities like Colorado Springs and Denver, Kelly said, but now rural areas are contributing to the majority of the COVID cases he’s seeing.
“It’s going to travel through populations that have lower vaccination rates and that have lower natural immunity,” he said.
As far as rural communities with low vaccination rates are concerned, Kelly said it might as well be the height of the pandemic. The pandemic has typically been viewed as a “city problem,” Kelly said, but low vaccination rates in rural areas could change that.
If re-elected after his current term ends in January 2023, Kelly said he will dedicate himself to changing Colorado policies so there is no longer the threat of someone unqualified running for the position of coroner. For the majority of Colorado’s 64 counties, coroners are elected by popular vote. Although those coroners are required to take a 40-hour training course and to become certified death investigators within one year of assuming office, this training pales in comparison to the 13 years of medical education that it takes to become a board-certified forensic pathologist.
“It’s not about me,” Kelly said. “It’s about leaving a legacy that protects the integrity of this office.”
The U.S. still relies heavily on an elected-coroner system where virtually anyone over 18 years old can become a coroner. One explanation: there’s a shortage of forensic pathologists in the United States. This shortage is exacerbated by a lack of forensic pathology training programs, low salaries and a lack of government funding to afford qualified medical examiners.