Douglas County commissioners vote to form their own public health department

Action follows Tri-County Health Department's move to bar counties from opting out of school mask rules

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Douglas County commissioners have unanimously voted to form their own health department and board of health, formally splitting from the Tri-County Health Department after 55 years. 

The move, in a work session Sept. 1, came just a few days after Tri-County Health's board voted to no longer allow counties to opt out of COVID-19 public health orders and enacted a mask mandate for all students and staff in school settings -- a rule that is being enforced by the Douglas County School District.

The agency administers public health programs in Douglas as well as Arapahoe and Adams counties.

Douglas County commissioners will vote again on a full resolution regarding forming the county's own health department and leaving Tri-County Health next Tuesday, Sept. 7 at 4 p.m.

The county will have 90 days to form its own board of health, and that board will then select an executive director for the county’s health department, according to the county attorney

While commissioners have begun the process of forming their own health department, until they appoint a new board of health, the county will still be under the purview of Tri-County, according to a county spokesperson. As of press time, the county had not yet established a timeline for when it would appoint that board.

Normally, counties are required to give the health department one year’s notice before they leave, but during the work session, County Attorney Lance Ingalls said that he believes there is a strong legal argument for why that’s not needed this time.

Ingalls said that because Tri-County had recently voted to rescind the opt-out option — a negotiated agreement between the two entities — an earlier notification of withdrawal from the county, in July of 2020, was still intact.

The county has already paid for services from Tri-County for the rest of the year and plans to continue receiving those services, just with a Douglas County-specific board of health in charge of governance, Commissioner Lora Thomas said during the meeting.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began early last year, Douglas County's elected leaders have frequently expressed displeasure with Tri-County over its pandemic-safety policies, and have discussed standing up the county's own agency.

In July 2020, Douglas County commissioners announced they would eventually leave Tri-County, citing a wish for more local control over public health orders.

But last November, the commissioners walked the decision back and agreed to stay with the health department until at least 2023. As part of that agreement, however, the commissioners were assured they would be able to opt out of any public health order.

After Tri-County enacted a mask mandate for students ages 2 to 11 and any staff that work with them last week, Douglas and Adams counties’ commissioners both voted to opt out of the order. Arapahoe County commissioners were also planning to discuss a possible opt out, but then the health board voted Aug. 30 to no longer allow opt outs.

Opting out would have left the decision of whether to enforce the Tri-County school mask order up to school districts in the agency's three-county area.

That motion to end opt outs was approved with a 5-3 vote with the two present Douglas County board of health representatives and an Arapahoe County representative voting no. After rescinding the opt out option, the health board approved a mask mandate for anyone over the age of 2 in schools and childcare settings.

Immediately following the decision from Tri-County, the Douglas County commissioners released a statement saying they planned to continue its work in identifying “a public health agency framework that will honor the needs of Douglas County citizens,” according to the statement emailed through a spokesperson.

“The Tri-County Health Department board’s decision to rescind the opt-out provision from their policy during their meeting this afternoon unilaterally reversed our negotiated Nov. 10, 2020 agreement,” according to the statement.

​​In a statement responding to the decision, a Tri-County spokesperson said the agency will help in the transition to a new Douglas County health department.

"We are saddened to hear of Douglas County’s desire to leave Tri-County Health Department after a long and rich history of providing quality public health services to the residents of Douglas County," according to the statement. "We are committed to keeping Douglas County safe and healthy and will continue to provide these services as long as necessary to make the transition as smooth as possible for the county’s residents and our staff."

The commissioners' work session was available to the public and a notification during that meeting showed that county staff recorded the meeting. About 200 people tuned into the meeting.

According to Tri-County Health, Douglas County joined the department on Jan. 1, 1966.

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