Douglas County plans to withdraw from Tri-County Health Department

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The Douglas County Board of Commissioners has announced the county plans to begin the process of withdrawing from the Tri-County Health Department. 

The announcement comes after commissioners openly rebuked the health department's decision on July 8 to mandate mask wearing in public in its jurisdiction of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. The order allows communities to opt out of mandated mask wearing.

Tri-County Executive Director John Douglas said during the July 8 conference call that Douglas County does not need a mask mandate.

County commissioners felt the health agency's decision was the final straw.

“Consistently, since the beginning of this pandemic and crisis, we’ve seen a marked distinction between Douglas County and our counterparts to the north,” Commissioner Abe Laydon said. “It’s time to build our own health department.”

Laydon said the commissioners understood the county could transition out of the Tri-County Health Department “seamlessly” without any effect on residents.

County staff would be responsible for determining cost, location, funding and everything else associated with creating a health department, Laydon said.

Douglas County has had far fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases -- 1,271 as of July 13 -- than have Adams or Arapahoe County -- 4,805 and 5,777 cases respectively -- and the fewest hospitalizations and deaths, according to Tri-County tallies. But it also saw the steepest rate of increase in cases over a 14-day period that ended July 13.

Leaving Tri-County has been the subject of a serious discussion among the commissioners and county staff for the last four months, Laydon said.

 No official decision has been made, but Laydon said leaving Tri-County is all but set in stone from the commissioner’s perspective.

Back in March, several Republican state legislators from Douglas County wrote a letter calling on the county to sever ties with the Tri-County agency over what they called its "heavy-handed" stay-at-home order.

Under state statue, the commissioners need to provide notice to Tri-County of their intent to withdraw from the department at least one year in advance, according to the county attorney.

“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.”

Douglas County commissioners also announced the county will move to opt out of the health department's mask mandate.

County commissioners said they doubt a mask mandate will be easily enforceable and said 75% of the community is already wearing masks voluntarily, according to a county news release.

“For us, we were a bit surprised the way the motion came through from the board of health,” Laydon said.

Laydon said the Douglas County board expected Tri-County to create an opt-in mandate, which would have required the City of Aurora and Adams County to comply with a mask mandate but would give the rest of Arapahoe and Douglas counties the choice to opt-in.

“I absolutely support the decision of citizens to wear a mask and businesses decision to require them. We understand the science and the efficacy of the symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission that masks can certainly help,” Laydon said. “The problem we had as a board is forcing people, if they’re indoors, to wear them in public.”

Laydon noted that requiring mask use indoors everywhere can be harmful in some instances, like when a person is going to the gym and is exercising vigorously.

Laydon supported his stance by noting 52 people have died in Douglas County due to COVID-19 as opposed to Adams and Arapahoe counties, which have had nearly three times as many deaths.

“Every life counts, and every life matters to us,” Laydon said. “But the reality is we need to have public health orders that impact in a different way…That’s a whole other public health crisis with externalities (like) substance abuse, a lot of issues associated with mental health that are also important distinctions for us. It’s important to make decisions that help everybody and when you have these top-down mandates it can have some negative impacts.”

Commissioner Lora Thomas said in a statement the board believes "that trusting our citizens and business community to continue doing what they do, without a mandate, is the best approach."

Douglas, the health agency chief, said in a letter to staff that Douglas County has considered breaking off from the agency for several years. 

"After 50+ years of partnership, there is never a good time for such a decision, but its occurrence in the midst of the COVID pandemic is particularly challenging," Douglas wrote.

He noted the change won't take place for a year and said the Tri-County Health Department expects to serve Douglas County until then.

The Tri-County Health Department board approved the mask order in a 5-4 vote. The order is still being drafted but would last for 90 days once in effect. The health department could later extend or rescind the order.

On July 8, Arapahoe County's board of county commissioners issued a statement saying that while it “remains concerned with the enforceability, efficacy and constitutionality of this public health order (to wear masks), Arapahoe County will continue to promote and support sound practices around all aspects of COVID-19 prevention, including frequent hand washing and social distancing."

“I don’t see us identifying a path back to Tri-County Health at this point,” Laydon said. “I can’t opine on that until staff has done their due diligence.”

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