Arapahoe County Public Health open after Tri-County dissolution

174 employees to guide new department

Nina Joss
njoss@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 1/6/23

Roughly 200 people gathered in a conference space at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds. The bustling noises fell into an organized silence as the crowd listened for the farthest thing they could hear. Then, for the closest.

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Arapahoe County Public Health open after Tri-County dissolution

174 employees to guide new department

Posted

Roughly 200 people gathered in a conference space at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds. The bustling noises fell into an organized silence as the crowd listened for the farthest thing they could hear. Then, for the closest.

These listening exercises were part of the team-building activities at the grand opening of the Arapahoe County Public Health Department on Jan. 3. The  174-employee department, tasked with providing public health services, replaces the seven-decade-old Tri-County agency.

Tri-County served Arapahoe County and its neighbors, Adams and Douglas counties, but became controversial for some amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The department’s implementation of mask mandates in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus caused a rift, triggering officials in Douglas County to begin the process of launching their own health department.

With the departure of Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams eventually decided to go their own ways as well.

“We have an incredible opportunity in front of us," said Jennifer Ludwig, director of Arapahoe's new department, at the grand opening. "It is not every day that you get to build a health department from the ground up.” 

Staff and services

The official switch happened on Jan. 1. Arapahoe's department is providing “all the services that a large public health agency would be providing,” according to Ludwig.

This includes inspections of restaurants, school cafeterias, pools, child care centers, body art locations, landfills and more.

The department also provides nurse home visits, immunizations, birth and death certificates, tobacco use-prevention resources, mental health resources and harm reduction services including syringe exchange for sterile injection equipment, according to the department’s website.

The county agency is also receiving state funding for a COVID response team made up of 40 temporary employees. These individuals work as part of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Program, which provides resources regarding safety concerns and planning for various emergencies.

In addition to these programs, the department administers the Nutrition for Women, Infants, Children (WIC) program, which provides free nutritious foods and nutrition education to pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, infants and young children.

Thomassen Davis, a nurse practitioner at the department, said she was excited to continue providing sexual health services as she did when she previously worked at Tri-County. Arapahoe County’s sexual health clinics will provide birth control and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

“It's really exciting to be able to keep doing that work for Arapahoe County, because I know there’s need,” she said. “We have a great group of nurse practitioners and they do an amazing job.”

Davis is one of 150 employees who applied to the Arapahoe department from Tri-County, according to Arapahoe County Communications Manager Chris Henning. 

The department’s services are provided at locations in Greenwood Village, Englewood and two in Aurora.

Loose ends and goals

As the public health department kicks off, Ludwig said there are a few loose ends left to tie up as the staff transitions to the mindset of a new department.

“All systems are new, everybody needed to be issued a laptop,” she said. “It's changing from one platform to another… what most people are used to using is all brand new.”

She added that the county worked closely with Douglas and Adams counties during the transition. She said the department will have to spend some time solidifying their new phone system and software.  She also expects improvements in internal communications.

“We're spread across four facilities in the county,” she said. “How do we best communicate with one another? What's the most effective and efficient way of sitting around the table and sharing what we know and what we learned?”

The department is also seeking to engage with the community. With integrity, equity, engagement and inclusivity as some of their guiding principles, Ludwig said the department will focus on being available and responsive to community needs.

Shawn Davis, one of five members of Arapahoe County’s Foundational Board of Health, said a lot of communities felt they didn’t have input in the Tri-County Health Department because of the way it was organized. 

“So many times, we focus on the underserved and we go in and we do focus groups, we do key informant interviews, but we really don't seek to learn from the community,” he said at the grand opening. “I think if we're going to make Arapahoe County — not just public health better, but the county as a whole — we have to do a better job of engaging all of the communities, especially the communities who have been left out.”

Budget

The county's new health department budget was approved at $21 million by County Commissioners last month.

According to Ludwig, 70% of the budget is made of up contracts and grants. Now that the department is official, her team will compare the grants and contracts they have received with the estimates they made to build the budget. She said county health has the ability to go back to the Board of Health if amendments are necessary.

There are also some grant applications the department is waiting to hear back on and some vacancies they are hoping to fill. As these loose ends get tied up, the department will continue fine-tuning its numbers.

“We have to plug in the numbers and adjust and it's going to be fine tuning throughout the year,” she said. “Hopefully by the time we're budgeting for next year, we have a better sense of what our public health budget looks like.”

As the department gets into full swing, its leaders recognize that there may be some challenges along the way.

“We all acknowledge that building this will not be easy, but each of you will make a positive difference,” Board of Health member Bebe Kleinman said to the employees at the grand opening.

But even if there are bumps in the road, the department’s team believes it will be a success.

“We're going to give ourselves the permission and the room to experiment,” Ludwig said at the opening. “We're going to try new things, or we're going to do old things in a new way... And if we fall, we will get back up, and we will assess what didn't go right and we will do it until we fly."

tri-county health department, arapahoe county health department, jennifer ludwig, shawn davis, public health

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