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Our View: Public health

Archuleta County should think twice about withdrawing from district

Recently, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners announced that in July it would be appointing a committee to study whether it should withdraw from participation in San Juan Basin Public Health, our local public health agency.

Archuleta commissioners, along with some in the county, have been unhappy with SJBPH for a few years. Disagreement with the public health authority over COVID-19 restrictions only exacerbated their dissatisfaction.

The long-established itch is a matter of septic system regulations. Residents have chafed at the high costs of septic systems and blame SJBPH for enforcing state regulations designed to prevent groundwater contamination. (Those regulations are actually promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency and trickle down through the state.)

When COVID-19 arrived, with all its sudden restrictions – and regulations imposed by the state through the local public health authority – Archuleta County commissioners and some residents bristled.

“We came to realize the culture, the personalities and the values of La Plata County and Durango were not always exactly the same as ours,” County Manager Scott Wall said in an interview this week. “Like we were singing off two different pages. They were doing what they thought was best for both, but it didn’t fit Archuleta County well.”

As for the fact that SJBPH is tasked with enforcing state and federal laws? “You know how laws are; it’s how you apply them,” Wall said.

The commission’s action is not a surprise; it fits with what’s been happening nationally. Because of dissatisfaction and anger at perceived overreaches by governors and public health officials in response to the pandemic, about 15 state legislatures have passed or are considering measures to severely limit the legal authority of public health agencies, according to a May joint report by the Network for Public Health Law and the National Association of County & City Health Officials.

These new laws include measures preventing public health officials from enforcing just about every measure taken during COVID-19 to protect public health, from mask-wearing to business closures.

No such statutes were introduced or passed during the 2021 Colorado Legislature.

The movement to get out from under the authority of public health officials is very dangerous. Independent public health boards were created for a reason: to put decisions in the hands of public health experts who are trained to assess and respond to public health threats and thereby relieve elected officials of making decisions they are not qualified to make. Elected officials are too often subject to pressure from their constituents (who finance the election process) to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the public.

Wall said the committee the Archuleta County commissioners will appoint in July will be expected to determine whether or not the county could set up, run and finance its own public health authority. The process will likely take four to six months, he said.

SJBPH Director Liane Jollon, who found out about the commission’s decision through news coverage of a county meeting, said she would be glad to talk through the issues at hand with Archuleta County officials.

But if Archuleta County follows through to withdraw from SJBPH, state law requires a yearlong process that essentially involves dissolving the multi-county public health district and re-creating separate entities, she noted.

So, just as SJBPH begins reorganizing and rebuilding itself in the (we hope) wake of COVID-19, it could also face the bureaucratic challenge of reinventing itself to serve La Plata County only. Archuleta County would have to start from square one.

Maybe Archuleta County needs to create its own public health authority to feel its unique issues are being addressed. But if it follows recent national trends and finds a way to restrict the power of its public health officials, serious public health problems could arise. We hope the county takes a long, hard look at making such a decision; it isn’t one that could be easily reversed.

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