DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — The Board of Douglas County Commissioners on Tuesday voted to formally withdraw from the Tri-County Health Department (TCHD) and establish its own health agency over their displeasure with a mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions.
Commissioners Abe Laydon, George Teal and Lora Thomas all voted for the resolution during Tuesday’s special meeting. The passing of the resolution formally completes the county’s withdrawal from TCHD, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, and establishes a Douglas County health agency to be called the Douglas County Health Department, according to the resolution.
The commissioners' move to expedite the process and leave TCHD comes after the agency’s Board of Health voted last month to require masks for everyone 2 and up in indoor school and child care settings and rescind the ability for individual counties to opt out of the public health order.
Commissioners had voted earlier to opt out of the health department’s public health order to require masks in schools. However, the Douglas County School District said they are following Tri-County’s guidelines and have required students in the district to mask up.
The county has 90 days to appoint a board of health. During a work session before Tuesday's vote, first reported by Douglas County News-Press, the board agreed to initial appointments to the board of health for the new Douglas County Health Department.
Those tasked to serve on the board will include two commissioners, Thomas and Teal, and current Tri-County board members, Dr. Linda Fielding and Kim Muramoto. Doug Benevento was also appointed, according to Wendy Manitta Holmes, director of communications for Douglas County. The board will vote on Sept. 14 to formalize the appointments.
Once the board of health meets for first time, the organization will be created, according to Douglas County Attorney Lance Ingalls. The county would contract with TCHD for the remainder of 2021 as the county has budgeted for the service up until then. Laydon assured the public there will be no gap in service.
Commissioners have not released specifics on how the county will pay for its own health agency or how much it will cost. But the county said it is eligible for state per-capita distribution of public health funds and grants to help support the newly-formed Douglas County Health Department, which will serve more than 350,000 people. Teal said he does not anticipate raising taxes at this time.
Not everyone supports Douglas County's move to withdraw from TCHD, at least not yet. In a letter sent to Ingalls before Tuesday's vote, Arapahoe County Attorney Ron Carl asked commissioners to refrain from proceeding with the withdrawal process because of potential economic and service impacts on Arapahoe and Adams counties.
Carl asked commissioners to halt proceedings until the three counties served by TCHD can meet to discuss these potential issues and come to an agreeable strategy. The county attorney threatened legal action to force the county to pay its statutory share of expenses for TCHD if commissioners continue as planned. Carl also claims the resolution is in violation of state law, which requires counties to issue a one-year advance notice before they are legally able to withdraw.
However, the resolution passed Tuesday asserts the county has met the legal requirement. The resolution cites a letter commissioners sent to TCHD in July of last year, informing the agency of Douglas County’s intent to leave the department because of the board's displeasure with mask mandates and stay-at-home orders during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But in November of last year, commissioners ultimately agreed to stay with TCHD at least through December 31, 2022.
Ingalls stated during Tuesday's meeting that the county has legal ground to stand on because, he said, the agreement reached with Tri-County when Douglas County rescinded the July 2020 notice was contingent on the county retaining the option to opt out of public health orders. He argues that Tri-County's vote last month to reverse the opt-out option breached that agreement.
The Douglas County School District sent a letter to parents Tuesday, reminding them that the district is still under the jurisdiction of the TCHD, and facial coverings are still required to be worn by all individuals age 2 years and older, regardless of vaccination status, in all school and child care settings.