By Bruce Dammeier, Pierce County Executive.
It has never been more important for Pierce County to have strong, effective public health services. Our community’s health and wellbeing have been taken to the brink by the pandemic. There is not one aspect of our lives that hasn’t been touched and diminished, if not destroyed, by COVID. Even with vaccinations starting in our county, the impacts of the pandemic are far from over – especially those that stem not from the disease directly, but from the consequences of battling it. As we enter the holiday season, the mental health impacts for our community are only now starting to become fully apparent.
Earlier this week, the County Council voted on a proposal designed to ensure our community has robust health services in Pierce County for the long-term, after the COVID pandemic is over.
The proposal would have directed me to work with public health leaders, health department customers, and other stakeholders to develop draft legislation by the end of next year. It also would have authorized me—sometime after the pandemic is over—to trigger a 1 to 2-year process to incorporate the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department into the County family as a full-fledged Pierce County department. Additionally, after January 2023, and absent any further action by the Council, the County Council would have become the Board of Health. The proposal failed on a 3-3 vote.
The debate by Councilmembers and community members over the past couple weeks was only part of a larger conversation about the future of public health in our region. I understand the Governor and Secretary of Health intend to offer legislation in the coming legislative session that may lead to dramatic revisions in how local health departments are funded, organized, and administered. This may explain, in part, why the Governor stepped in and ordered—inappropriately, in my opinion—a freeze on our local policymaking process.
While I didn’t initiate the Council’s proposal, I do think there are potential improvements we should explore. For example, we should be able to improve services through better coordination in areas like emergency response, human services, and permitting and inspections. And, I believe we would realize more efficiencies and economies of scale if the health department was integrated into a larger governmental unit, which frees up resources to be invested back into our communities.
In the new year, I hope to work with our new Council and community stakeholders to craft a thoughtful and shared vision for the future of public health. My goal has always been to improve and enhance the health and wellbeing of our residents. This effort is both urgent and important since Pierce County ranks 22nd out of 39 counties in the state in terms of health outcomes, while other Puget Sound counties are in the top 10. We can do better.
One way we can complement this important work is by passing the mental health sales tax proposal scheduled for Council action on December 22nd. This proposal advances behavioral health by combining systemic reform, targeted investments, and rigorous oversight. It builds on our previous progress—new programs and services like MCIRT, co-responders, the Crisis Recovery Center and others.
I want to thank Councilmember Dave Morell for sponsoring this proposal. I also want to especially thank Heather Moss, Steve O’Ban, and the entire Regional System of Care Committee for their work to get us to this point. I hope to be able to sign this proposal by Christmas.
In closing, I want to remind folks it’s okay to not be okay. A counseling professional said earlier this week that we’ve entered the “disillusionment phase” of the pandemic. People are withdrawing from previously fun activities and avoiding interacting with others. Many are experiencing depression. If you are feeling this way, I encourage you to seek out support, help and services to care for your emotional and physical health needs.
We are all in this together and it will take the contributions of all of us to create a healthier Pierce County in the future.
First published on the Pierce County website.