Head of Tri-County on one year of COVID-19

Dr. John Douglas has led the department since 2013

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If there’s one word to describe the past year for Dr. John Douglas, it’s “relentless.”

As the director of the state’s largest public health department, Douglas has endured a nearly-endless slog of meetings, questions, criticisms and suggestions over the past COVID-19 year.

Business owners, elected leaders, residents and others from Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — those communities represented by Tri-County Health Department — have come to him often with their fears, concerns and confusion during this period.

“And every question, he provides a great deal of attention to,” said Emma Pinter, an Adams County commissioner. “What I think people don’t realize is … he does that every time, all day, every day.”

Douglas, who has been in the position since 2013, is consumed daily by hours of video chat meetings with his staff, the counties he represents and school districts. Often, he also participates in educational efforts like town halls and webinars. His schedule varies, but on average, he’s spending about 11 to 12 hours per day working, he said.

Douglas, 68, has hardly taken time off and when he has, work usually wriggles its way into his schedule anyway.

“The man never stops,” said Jennifer Ludwig, deputy executive director for Tri-County. “I don’t know how he has the energy to do what he does.”

But before the disease took hold locally, causing more than 120,000 infections, 7,000 hospitalizations and 1,500 deaths in Tri-County’s three communities in its first year, Douglas’ name was unknown to many. Instead of being associated with mask mandates and disease data, he was a guy who enjoyed singing in his church choir, visiting his grandchildren and biking.

Before joining Tri-County, Douglas spent the bulk of his career heading up programs on the state and national level with the goal of preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

After a decade at the Centers for Disease Control, Douglas came to Tri-County, where he adopted the philosophy of focusing on issues that have the greatest impact on health “for which we have some capacity to do something,” he said.

‘I like people’

When the first wave of politics entered discussions around COVID-19, Douglas hadn’t expected it at all. 

“I really didn’t, which was probably naive,” he said.

In March of 2020, legislators from Douglas County wrote an open letter to commissioners urging them to leave the health department after Tri-County voted to enact a stay-at-home order, which was quickly eclipsed by a statewide mandate.

“I was completely blindsided,” Douglas said.

Then, after Tri-County approved a mask mandate, which was then replaced by a statewide order, Douglas County commissioners voted to leave the health department in a year. Commissioners later rescinded that decision and have said they will remain with the department through at least 2022.

During weekly meetings, Douglas is regularly pressed on why restrictions are in place — even though virtually all public health orders and restrictions are coming from the state level.

In one meeting, Castle Rock town council member Kevin Bracken called Douglas’ summary of the present situation “disingenuous” and has also said in a town meeting that he believes Douglas has “dropped the ball.”

“We’re far better off than your summary,” Bracken said to Douglas in one weekly meeting. “What is the Tri-County Health Department recommendation over to the state ... to reopen? Has that recommendation been forwarded?”

In response, Douglas told Bracken he would consider his suggestion to make recommendations to the state on how to re-open, adding “you’re correct to push your local health department to voice these concerns.”

“He really deals with very difficult questions and just handles them,” Ludwig said, adding that she’s heard Douglas get many pointed questions.

Abe Laydon, a commissioner in Douglas County, said he’s appreciated Douglas’ work with the commissioners, including on local variances, the certified 5-star business program and a new, severity metric the county and Douglas proposed to the state.

“While we haven’t always agreed, Dr. Douglas has been consistently gracious (and) regularly indicating a willingness to engage,” Laydon said.

One approach Douglas has adopted is putting himself in the shoes of local government and business leaders’ as much as possible, he said.

“I do realize, honestly, that our elected officials have a tough job to do. I understand their frustration,” he said. “I’m not single-minded to think the only thing we ought to be paying attention to is preventing COVID. I understand there are health consequences to businesses not being open. There are people losing jobs, there are people who can’t pay their rent, there are schools not being open.”

Pinter, who is the liaison between Adams County and the health department, has a theory about Douglas’ approach.

“What he recognizes is behind every person’s question is a sincere concern,” Pinter said. “By taking their question seriously, he takes their concern seriously.” 

For Douglas, the reasoning behind his approach to tough questions is simple.

“I like people. People that are kind of harsh critics, sometimes I can find a way to joke around with them or find some common ground,” he said. “I feel better behaving toward other people like that.”

Nancy Jackson, an Arapahoe County commissioner who was on Tri-County’s interview team when Douglas applied for the executive director position, said Douglas has always come across as someone who cares deeply for others.

“I think they (the public) just dont see him as a person, they don’t see how thoughtful and how kind he is,” she said. “He’s not issuing public health orders just for the fun of it ... he is truly using all of his vast resources to do what he thinks is best for the community.”

While Douglas doesn’t think he’s experienced as much vitriol as other colleagues of his across the country, he’s had plenty of angry emails. Last spring, his home address was shared online and, as a precaution, he put a stack of anatomy textbooks over the small window leading down to his basement to block the view into his home office.

Douglas has also handled the politicization of some public health decisions using the strategy of being as science-based as possible, he said.

“The more we can stick to that, the safer the ground we’re on,” he said.

Before COVID

Originally from Charlotte, North Carolina, Douglas grew up around medicine with his physician father. He studied English in college but later decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend medical school at Harvard University.

During those early years, Douglas thought he’d be a primary care doctor. As a resident at the University of Washington, Douglas began his path in internal medicine and primary care.

“About halfway through that I looked around and the people that seemed to be doing the most fun stuff were infectious disease (doctors),” he said.

He went on to study the herpes virus for a few years and then moved to Denver to work for the city’s department of health. There, he led the sexually transmitted disease control program for almost 20 years. During the same period, he worked in several other capacities in the city, including as an attending physician at Denver General Hospital. 

In 2003, Douglas went to work with the CDC, where he directed the national division of STD prevention. After seven years in that role, he spent another three years as the Chief Medical Officer at the National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

“I spent a lot of time trying to promote the concept of sexual health,” he said.

In 2013, he was offered the role of executive director at Tri-County.

“This was an opportunity to do public health at the trenches level which ended up for me being completely, incredibly fascinating,” he said.

While the health department dealt with some infectious diseases before the pandemic, they also focused on mental health, substance abuse, nutrition, the environment, housing, chronic diseases and more, Douglas said.

“It was sort of like gosh, every day is like being a freshman in college,” he said. “Every time I’d ever hear a story on the radio or in the paper, I would always ask … is there something we should be doing? And that’s been a fantastically fun thing.”

A father of four — not including he and his wife’s new puppy named Gus — and grandfather to seven, Douglas said his biggest personal hit has been losing the ability to see three of his grandchildren who live in Montreal, Canada.

Going forward, Douglas sees the vaccine as the best bet for overcoming this pandemic, he said. As the situation improves, he’s looking forward to traveling to see grandkids, planning a road trip or bike trip with his wife and getting together with friends and family face-to-face, he said. 

“We’re going to get out of this,” he said. “We’re going to get, I think, back to almost normal life.”  

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