DENVER — It took a pandemic to bring down a 70-year-old health department. After political disagreements between counties over COVID-19 protocols — including masking, school closures and more — in exactly four months, the Tri-County Health Department will officially dissolve.
Douglas County commissioners voted unanimously to exit Tri-County last September, followed by Adams County in October. Arapahoe County was the last to leave in December but said it had no choice after the other two counties exited.
Now, a year later, two of the counties say they are in a good position to take over the health needs of their residents.
Tri-County performed a multitude of services for the counties, ranging from health inspections, nutrition programs, behavioral health services, clean water and air monitoring, substance abuse programs, immunizations and more. Now, it will be up to each county to figure out how to offer all of those services.
After seven decades, a sunset
For the past six months, Tri-County Health executive director Dr. John Douglas and his team have been figuring out what the legal structure for winding down looks like.
“This is unprecedented stuff for them, just like it is unprecedented for us to wind it down,” Douglas said.
His priorities have been three-fold — keep the staff informed about what’s happening so they don’t leave before the end of the year and Tri-County can continue to operate, figuring out how to stop things like IT and payroll, and helping the individual health departments get started.
“It's what can we do to try to get the new health department started on as good footing as possible,” Douglas said.
So far, the majority of questions from the counties have been around protocols, like how to perform restaurant or septic system inspections or how to set up an immunization clinic.
Each county has also been working to collect its individual records from Tri-County and get it into its own database.
Douglas believes the biggest hole left by Tri-County's departure is the wide range of experts and services a department with seven decades of experience was able to foster.
“We were able to offer a pretty deep bench of experts in a variety of different topical areas. And I think that'll be one of the challenges with smaller jurisdictions sort of building up that expertise,” he said.
While Douglas is sad to see Tri-County go, he says the individual counties have been working hard to get all of their programs running. He believes there will be hiccups for each department on the onset, but he is confident they will be ready to go by January 1.
Over at Arapahoe County, commissioners hired a consultant with experience in public health to build a roadmap for how to stand up the department.
“We're a new health department, and we don't have a whole lot of experience,” said District 2 commissioner Nancy Sharpe.
In June, the county was able to appoint its foundational health board, and this month, it will be adopting new environmental rules and regulations and looking at its fee structure. It’s also working on developing a website.
The county has budgeted roughly $20 million for the department next year. This year, it’s put nearly $6 million into standing up the department and hiring staff. It’s also gotten 90 people to sign commitment letters to join the department in January. However, Sharpe says the department will need around 180 people total, so recruitment has been the major focus.
Many of the people Arapahoe County has hired are coming from Tri-County Health. However, it is competing with Douglas and Adams counties, the state and private employers in recruiting the soon-to-be former Tri-County staff.
“We probably will be still going through that hiring process after the first of the year. And so, we know we won't be 100% at that point, but we'll have our clinics open,” Sharpe said.
Because of that, she says the new health department might have to cut back its clinic hours for a time.
The county is also shifting its focus away from some Tri-County priorities and cutting back on some programs to tailor the department its specific needs. For instance, Sharpe says the county won’t need place as much focus on some environmental monitoring since it doesn’t have as much industrial development as Adams County.
Nevertheless, Sharpe says the county will still offer the majority of its services. Residents have expressed particular interest in its WIC and Nurse Family Partnership programs.
“I can't promise that there won't be a hiccup or something along the way,” Sharpe said.
However, she believes the county is in good shape and residents will experience a smooth transition.
In Adams County, meanwhile, its board of health was put into place a couple of weeks ago. On Thursday, the county held a meeting to pick its first ever health department executive director.
The health department will have about 175 employees when it is fully staffed. So far, Kelly Weidenbach, the public transition director for the county, says they have managed to fill roughly 70% of the vacant positions.
Like Arapahoe County, Adams is also recruiting heavily from Tri-County itself.
“Certainly, there is, what I would say, is healthy competition between all the Denver metro local health departments. But so far, we're not really having any challenges in terms of recruiting,” Weidenbach said.
In fact, Weidenbach herself was formerly on Tri-County’s executive management team. However, she doesn’t see staffing as a major challenge for the new department at the moment. Instead, she says the timing has posed the biggest challenge up to this point.
“The timeline itself has been a hurdle and a barrier. I think in most circumstances, we would have preferred to have some more time to do that planning,” Weidenbach said.
Adams County is also working to tailor its new department its needs, with an increased focus on its environmental health team and assuring that the conditions around industrial areas are safe for residents. That will mean a larger emphasis on clean air, food and water.
There is also an increased focus on community engagement to address the unique needs and challenges of people experiencing the most disparities. Weidenbach says more of the health department’s staff will be focused on those groups.
Denver7 reached out to Douglas County for an update on its progress in standing up its own health department, but no one was made available for an interview.
Tri-County Health must dissolve by midnight on December 31.