Some parents ask Arapahoe to break from Tri-County Health Department

Backlash to mask mandate for all students lands at commissioners' feet

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In emotional tones, parents pleaded with Arapahoe County's elected leaders to act to oppose the local public health agency's mask requirement for students, with some speakers asking the county to pull out of the agency altogether.

“We need to get back to what America is about: Standing up for rights. And you don't want to cross that line, because as parents, grandparents, we have the responsibility to stop it,” said a woman who identified herself as Becky, of Centennial, during an Aug. 31 meeting of the Arapahoe County commissioners.

Others couched their opposition to the mask mandate in similarly dramatic fashion, with Jillian Garramone, a Jefferson County resident, saying: “You came for our kids; you should expect a war.” (Some speakers at the Arapahoe meeting were from neighboring counties.)

“We're not about violence, but let me just tell you, you mess with parents' kids, you will see a rebellion of some sort,” said Stephen Kohler, of Aurora. He added: “You mess with the moms and the dads on their kids, and there's going to be repercussions someday.”

The roughly 20 speakers during public comment at the county meeting reacted to the decision of Tri-County Health Department — the agency that serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — to require masks in schools. A few speakers appeared to break into tears.

The health agency on Aug. 30 repealed the ability of counties to opt out of its public health orders and issued an order requiring masks for all people age 2 and older in schools and childcare settings.

Tri-County Health initially approved a mask order for schools on Aug. 17, and it took effect Aug. 23, requiring masks for all children aged 2 through 11 years old — and all the individuals working or interacting with those children — in all indoor school and childcare settings in the three counties.

Amid a challenge from Douglas County about the process by which the Tri-County board of health arrived at that approval, the board of health rescinded that first order and put the new one in place.

The three Douglas County commissioners had unanimously approved a decision to opt out of the initial mask order on Aug. 19.

At least several dozen people protested outside the Arapahoe County administration building on Aug. 30 ahead of a preliminary discussion by the county's leaders on whether it should opt out of that earlier Tri-County order, a choice that was removed by Tri-County's action later that day.

The board of health also approved a decision to rescind its policy that allows county commissioners to opt out of countywide public health orders. That policy was adopted by the board in November 2020 amid a rift between Douglas County and Tri-County Health about the agency's pandemic policies.

Two days later, the Douglas County commissioners unanimously voted to notify Tri-County Health that the county will form its own health department and board of health, which would end a 55-year relationship with Tri-County. As of press time, the commissioners planned to formally ratify the decision in a Sept. 7 meeting.

A handful of speakers at the Arapahoe County commissioners meeting a day earlier urged the county to take that same step.

“This is child abuse,” Kaydee Van Deren, of Aurora, said before suggesting removal of the county from Tri-County Health.

Adams County commissioners had voted 3-2 to opt out of the earlier school mask order.

John Douglas, director of Tri-County Health, noted that one of the messages of Adams County commissioners' statements about opting out of the order was that they support masking and mask mandates but that they don't support the idea that commissioners should decide whether a health order should continue — they would rather have public health officials deciding on matters of health expertise, Douglas said.

When asked in the Aug. 31 meeting whether Arapahoe County might form its own health department, Commissioner Nancy Jackson said: “All I can tell you is studies are under review.” She later mentioned a “study that is ongoing.”

An Arapahoe County spokesperson confirmed that Arapahoe and Adams counties have also been contemplating splitting away from Tri-County Health, driven by Douglas County's intention to leave.

By October, Arapahoe and Adams counties' commissioners will be provided findings from a transition team to inform a decision on a new structure for public health services, according to Arapahoe County's statement. Consultants are examining the scenarios of a two-county health agency or creating single-county health departments. A new structure could provide public health services starting in 2023.

Kids see different pandemic policy

A speaker from the Douglas County community of Castle Pines pointed out that she could go to Target, go to the mall and then to a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre all without wearing a mask, but her 4-year-old has to wear a mask to school, calling it “hypocrisy.”

Generally, COVID-19 thus far has not made children as sick as adults, but “we want to keep kids from transmitting COVID to their parents,” especially among high-risk family members, Douglas, the health chief, said previously.

Children haven't been spared: Colorado has seen 18 COVID-19-associated deaths among ages 0 to 19, according to a joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, using data available on Aug. 26.

Colorado has also seen 1,104 hospitalizations associated with COVID-19 among ages 0-19 as of that date, according to the report.

Children younger than 12 are not currently eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Garramone, from Jefferson County, said, “We are protected under the Constitution,” and called the mask mandate abuse.

“This is not about our health. This is about control, this is about obedience, this is about seeing who will comply and who will not, and the ones who are not are going to be infinitely punished,” Garramone said.

Kohler questioned the authority of Tri-County Health, a sentiment echoed by another speaker.

The duties of local public health agencies are laid out in Colorado state law, under state statute 25-1-506. Among many others, they include the responsibility “to investigate and control the causes of epidemic or communicable diseases and conditions affecting public health … (and) to investigate and abate nuisances when necessary in order to eliminate sources of epidemic or communicable diseases and conditions affecting public health.”

Mental health concerns

Douglas, director of Tri-County Health, responded in the Aug. 30 board of health meeting to concerns among some parents that masks are making kids anxious or leading to other negative mental health outcomes.

“Really there is no science (supporting) the concern about masks impacting mental health,” Douglas said.

Mental health concerns among young people are likely due to family life and routines being disrupted amid the pandemic, along with isolation and uncertainty, according to Douglas.

“Kids are stressed. Being back in school and having them connect with other kids and having whatever we can do to help that happen, whether it's vaccines or masks,” is part of the solution, Douglas said.

The text of Tri-County Health's initial mid-August mask order also addressed the topic of mental health. It reads: “Children's Hospital Colorado clarified that mask wearing has not been linked to mental health problems in children or any other group and did not contribute to their declared 'state of emergency' for pediatric mental health.”

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