Douglas County's decision to begin the process of withdrawing from the Tri-County Health Department is "extraordinarily disruptive to our staff and planning in the middle of a pandemic,” the agency's top official said Friday.
Executive Director Dr. John Douglas said his agency, which provides public health services to Douglas as well as Arapahoe and Adams counties, is “just starting to process” the decision made by Douglas County's commissioners Thursday to move toward severing ties with the department.
In an interview with Colorado Community Media, Douglas said he was surprised at the timing and the quickness in which the decision was made.
“I’m sorry the decision was made as quickly as it was and we didn’t have a chance to talk through alternative strategies," he said.
The Douglas County Commissioners directed staff during a July 9 work session to begin the process of withdrawing from the health department.
Commissioner Abe Laydon said the decision is all but final.
The ball is currently in the court of county attorney Lance Ingalls, who will advise county officials on the next steps based on what is required from the state, according to a county spokesperson.
There is no guarantee Douglas County’s to-be public health department would function the same way as Tri-County — or even if it will have its own building.
Douglas County will remain part of Tri-County until at least July 11, 2021.
“We’ve enjoyed serving the residents of Douglas County,” Douglas said. “They are a healthy county, and we don’t want them to be impacted in this transition.”
The process of developing Douglas County’s public health department will be public and will provide residents multiple opportunities for engagement and feedback, Laydon said.
He said county staff and commissioners have discussed the prospect of leaving Tri-County since March, when Colorado’s stay-at-home orders began.
“It’s part of this overarching theme of accountability of our elected officials to people we represent,” Laydon said. “We really would like to see some measure of elected official representation on our board and expertise from the scientific community.”
The commissioners' decision came one day after the Tri-County Health Board of Directors decided to require the wearing of face masks in public across its three-county jurisdiction. The vote passed 5-4.
The board’s vote contradicted Douglas’ recommendation that the mask mandate be an opt-in format for counties. The board passed a blanket mandate giving members of Tri-County the freedom to opt out.
The vote was the apparent final straw for Douglas County commissioners.
“The arm’s length that has been given to the health department in the past 75-100 years was deliberately intended not to politicize public health,” Douglas said. “Now, everything is gray. There is no black-and-white universe. We’re in a situation now where you have an independent board of health where some of our elected officials go way beyond what is expected, and I get that. I get the way the (masks) statute is read makes it seem like extreme circumstances. ... This is not unique to Colorado.
“The principle of public health independent of politics, I strongly believe in, and I think we’re experiencing and extreme version of this,” he added.
Per Tri-County’s protocol for issuing public health orders, Douglas provided the Tri-County board with his findings and recommendations regarding a mask mandate.
“I thought a mask mandate could be beneficial to (Douglas County), but it was less imperative than it was in the other counties because the incident rates were lower there,” Douglas said.
Douglas noted there are differences in the level of need for each county in the system, which is why recommended an opt-in format.
The Tri-County board meeting July 8 was held virtually through Zoom, a video conferencing software. Douglas said the format of the meeting made communicating with board members, commissioners and others involved in the discussion challenging.
Douglas said he was “confounded by the fact it was a public meeting.”
Douglas said the meeting had many outbursts from people not respecting requests to remain quiet during the meeting.
Douglas said Adams and Arapahoe counties will be part of the discussion determining the transition process.
“To the extent we get distracted and less able to focus is potentially to the detriment of the other two counties for at least a short time period,” Douglas said. “I don’t know what a new Douglas County health department will look like. I don’t know the impact of the transitional efforts.
“To whatever extent we are working with the transition, we’re not working with schools to get reopened, not working with statisticians, not working with testing teams,” Douglas continued. “There are opportunity costs, but that happens with any transition. It’s just a bad time to endure that opportunity cost.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story innaccurately stated the Douglas County Commissioners' meeting in which they directed staff to proceed with the withdrawal procedure was closed to the public. The meeting was posted in the appropriate time frame consistent with Colorado's open meetings law.
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