“Effective immediately, our Board directed staff to begin the work of creating a separate public health department that will appropriately meet the needs of Douglas County,” County Commissioner Roger Partridge says in a July 9 statement announcing the county's intent to withdraw from the health department it's worked with for over fifty years.
The commissioners' decision came a day after Tri-County's Board of Health voted five to four in favor of enacting a mask requirement for anyone inside retail outlets like grocery stories and outside when social distancing of six feet or more isn't possible. The department's move was prompted by new COVID-19 cases continuing to increase in all three counties in late June.
That mandate, which will last for ninety days but has yet to take effect, allows for individual municipalities to opt out. It also allows counties to opt out on behalf of their unincorporated areas. In fact, Dr. John Douglas, executive director of the Tri-County Health Department, suggested that a mandatory mask edict might not be necessary for Douglas County, but the board decided to make it universal. And the commissioners responded with their own declaration of independence.
“We question the enforceability and efficacy of the mask mandate order, believing that trusting our citizens and business community to continue doing what they do, without a mandate, is the best approach,” Commissioner Lora Thomas says in the same statement.
The commissioners have pondered forming their own health department for years, but the idea picked up steam early in the COVID-19 pandemic when, in March, Republican state lawmakers representing parts of Douglas County asked the commissioners to cut ties with Tri-County over its issuance of a "shelter in place" order to combat the spread of the virus.
"It is our understanding that at least two of you opposed this heavy-handed application of governmental power. To those who did oppose the action, thank you for standing for the Constitution and with the majority of your constituents here in Douglas County. We consider it unacceptable that a contracted health agency could somehow ignore the will of a majority of our elected and accountable Douglas County Commissioners," the lawmakers wrote, while suggesting the county align with "either El Paso County Health or create a new health agency."
Now commissioners are pursuing the second option.
In a July 9 email to staff, Tri-County Health Department Executive Director John Douglas expressed sorrow over the commissioners' move.
"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. "The process of withdrawing from a district health department requires a year, so this change will not be imminent and our expectation is that we will continue to provide service to Douglas County for the next 12 months. We are aware that this development will create questions for all of our staff, and we will begin the process of determining what this transition will mean for TCHD and all who work here as soon as possible. Our goal will be to keep the well-being of our staff and the health of the residents of Douglas County first and foremost in mind as we manage this change."
While the commissioners are framing their decision as one of personal freedom, allowing residents of Douglas County to make choices, that approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has apparently backfired in the United States, where three states just broke all records for new cases and the vast majority of states have rising numbers.
Although Douglas County has fewer cases than the other two counties in the Tri-County area, its numbers are growing, too.
“Regarding the mask mandate opt-out," explains Commissioner Abe Laydon, "our remarkably favorable public health data, paired with the community’s current 75% mask-wearing voluntary compliance observed by TCHD, and based on Dr. Douglas’ recommendation that a mask mandate was not necessary for Douglas County, led us to this conclusion."