Hours before Tri-County Health Department was set to “reconsider” its school mask mandate and the option for counties to opt out of public health orders, the Douglas County commissioners appointed a Castle Rock Town Council member and the chair of Douglas County’s public health advisory committee as an interim board of health member.
Kevin Bracken, the Mayor Pro Tem of the Castle Rock Town Council, has been a vocal critic of Tri-County Health’s handling of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. He frequently goes head-to-head with TCHD Executive Director John Douglas in public meetings and has previously written the agency urging fewer COVID-19 precautions in schools, such as lifting mask mandates.
Bracken was recently selected as chair of the county’s public health advisory committee, which has the role of helping determine how and if the commissioners should break away from Tri-County. Tri-County serves Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties.
Tri-County’s board of health, made up of three representatives from each of its three counties, approved an indoor mask mandate for students ages 2 to 11 and any staff that work with them Aug. 17.
In November 2020, Tri-County began allowing county commissioners to choose if they wanted to opt out of public health orders following negotiations with Douglas County. As a result, Douglas County commissioners, who had threatened to leave the health department, agreed to stay with the agency until at least 2023.
Douglas County commissioners unanimously opted out of the mask mandate for young students Aug 19. However the county school district said that because of their own internal policy, they would enforce the mandate in schools.
Bracken will replace Zach Nannestad, who resigned from his position on the board of health Aug. 26 citing a conflict of interest due to his job with the Douglas County School District.
Bracken works as a consultant helping hospitals find cost-saving measures, according to a resume he submitted for the advisory committee.
In his application to join the committee, he wrote about frequent COVID-19 update meetings that he “argued with the Tri-County Health Department based on the skewed data sets in and isolated information that was provided during these meetings.”
“Ultimately, Tri-County Health Department was not interested in adjusting their information, they were only interested in driving their own agenda,” he wrote.
In one council meeting, he said he believed Douglas, the head of the organization, had “dropped the ball.”
Before joining the committee, Bracken joined other Douglas County elected officials in openly scrutinizing the school district and public health officials for COVID-19 precautions.
He was a staunch supporter of leaving masking in schools as a personal choice. Bracken provided Colorado Community Media an email he sent to Douglas, county commissioners and school district leaders.
Children were at lower risk for the virus, were less likely to spread COVID, the vulnerable were largely vaccinated and teachers were also vaccinating, he wrote.
“Without sounding callous, it is time for folks to exercise their own personal responsibility,” he wrote.
Bracken said he sent the email before a more transmissible strain first identified in the U.K. began widely circulating.
Still, students should not be required to mask if they would also be required to quarantine when exposed to COVID-19 regardless of whether they wore face coverings, he told Colorado Community Media.
Bracken scrutinized the health agency’s contact tracing practices in April, calling them ineffective. He argued Tri-County Health was not standing behind its own data showing children were at less risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and pressed Douglas to push back against Colorado Department of Public Health requirements.
In the pandemic’s early months, Bracken criticized closing struggling businesses to in-person service.
In May 2020, Bracken said he would patronize businesses that opened in defiance of shutdowns, so long as they practiced social distancing. In December he attended anti-shutdown rallies in Castle Rock in support of local businesses.
Split commissioner vote
A spokesperson said that the county commissioners wanted to ensure they had three board of health representatives for a planned Aug. 30 meeting of the group but wanted to fully consider the appointment later.
The health board planned to reconsider both their mask mandate and the option for opting out, according to an agenda for that meeting. A spokesperson for Tri-County said it’s unclear exactly what these “reconsiderations” will entail.
In a 3-2 vote, Adams County voted to opt out of the order Aug. 24. Arapahoe County planned to decide if they would opt out during an Aug. 31 meeting.
The Douglas County commissioners approved Bracken in a 2-1 vote with Commissioner Lora Thomas voting against the motion.
“I really hoped we would put someone on that board who had a medical background, a healthcare background, a background in a service that Tri-County Health supplies to our citizens,” she said.
Thomas added that depending on what happened in the board of health meeting, the commissioners would need to be nimble.
“If we end up in a situation where the county needs to form its own board of health quickly, I want to be sure that we are really demonstrating to citizens that we are serious about having subject matter experts on that board of health,” she said.
Commissioner George Teal defended the appointment, saying he felt Bracken was “an ideal choice” in part because of his work with hospital administrations.
“Of all the elected officials that we have seen following the Tri-County meetings ever since COVID became a crisis here in Colorado, he’s been the most active,” Teal said. “He’s definitely been the most involved and outspoken, he’s asked a lot of the hard questions of Dr. Douglas and the other senior staff of Tri-County.”
Teal also said he believes Bracken could add “a healthy dose of professionalism” to the board and that he hopes to see the appointment made permanent.
Neither Bracken nor Commissioner Abe Laydon immediately responded to requests for comment.