Douglas County, Tri-County Health Strike Tentative Agreement

Douglas County, Tri-County Health Strike Tentative Agreement
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Douglas County has struck a tentative agreement with the Tri-County Health Department to remain with the agency through at least the end of 2022.

"Our Board is persuaded by Tri-County Health Department’s policy proposal that would increase the role of individual counties regarding public health orders, as they are being developed and before they are issued," the Douglas County Board of Commissioners just announced.

Details of the agreement are sparse, and it would still need to be approved by the Tri-County Health Department's Board of Health. If the board okays the deal, the parties will have staved off a breakup of the decades-long partnership between Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties. Douglas County commissioners had said they were seeking a split in July, after the health department issued a mask mandate.

"We appreciate that Tri-County Health Department recognizes the value of engaging with local elected officials on decisions that impact the entire community. This proposal is in the best interest of the communities we serve and establishes a foundation for continued communication and collaboration," the commissioners' statement continues.

The July announcement that the Douglas County commissioners planned to leave the health partnership next year and form their own health department caught many by surprise, including Dr. John Douglas, executive director of the Tri-County Health Department. "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 in an email to staff just after the revelation.

While the announcement was surprising, there had been signs that the arrangement was in trouble.

"Over the last three or four years, it’s become bluntly more political — not dissimilar to the national partisanship," Douglas explained in July. "They say, 'Gee, we're a pretty conservative county, we're pretty Republican in an arrangement with counties that are less conservative, and we're subject to the same nine-person board of health.'"

Those political differences reached a tipping point when the Tri-County Board of Health voted in favor of a mask mandate for the three counties, with the chance for each county to opt out for their unincorporated areas. That mandate went further than the Tri-County Health Department's actual recommendation, which called for excluding Douglas County from the mask mandate and giving the county the choice of opting in.

Whether to leave Tri-County Health has been a hot topic in the race for commissioner seats in Douglas County.

Incumbent Republican Commissioner Lora Thomas suddenly had to fend off criticism from Democratic opponent Darien Wilson, who characterized the proposed split from Tri-County as a rash and anti-science move during a pandemic. Wilson has continued pressing Thomas on the issue, even creating ads in which she talks about respecting science and data in her decision-making.

Democrat Lisa Neal-Graves and Republican George Teal, who are vying for a seat that will be vacated by term-limited Roger Partridge, also have vastly differing perspectives on what Douglas County should do regarding Tri-County. Neal-Graves has questioned the idea of leaving or even considering leaving a health department during a pandemic, while Teal says that he is excited at the prospect of bringing more local control to Douglas County.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.