Concerned the city hasn’t had ready access to enough COVID-19 case data from the county to help make policy decisions during the pandemic, Independence’s Advisory Board of Health wants City Hall to look into re-establishing a standing health department.
The board voted unanimously last week to recommend the mayor, city manager and City Council consider such a move, two years removed from when the city dispersed the department. In that cost-saving move, the city dispersed the charter-mandated health functions to other city departments and stopped services that it duplicated with the Jackson County Health Department.
Mayor Eileen Weir said that in speaking with some board members this week, she understands and shares their concerns, and while she didn’t rule out the idea of re-establishing the department, she also put up extreme caution.
"This isn’t just something that’s going to happen overnight," Weir said, adding that it certainly won’t happen before the 2020-21 budget must be approved next month. "We’re going to have to think about it, and I don’t think there’s anyone from (the state) who wants to hear about this right now."
Christina Heinen, the city’s animal services director who also has overseen some of the health department changes, told the board that re-establishing the health department, while not impossible, wouldn’t happen easily.
"There would be hurdles; the economics of it would be difficult," Heinen said, adding that the city could hire or move the necessary people. "But we would still need the state to recognize us as the local health agency."
Weir said she doesn’t regret the decision two years ago to disassemble city health, noting that the annual savings from that move, about $400,000, allowed the city to establish the police department’s street crimes unit, addressing a more urgent problem at the time.
"Now, our problem is health," she said,
"I think it’s important to understand, what we did was innovative in de-centralizing the health department," Weir added. "I know what we saved by spreading the services around. None of us knew there would be a pandemic that would put the county health department in the spotlight like it has. The county health department is not adequately staffed and funded for this (event)."
In offering up the recommendation to the rest of the board, chairperson Ralph Ruckman said if the city could re-establish the department "maybe not at the same level as before, but to get the information we need when it’s important to get it."
Between the difficulty in receiving more specific case information, and the county health department not taking up the offer from fire services in Independence, Lee’s Summit and Central Jackson County to help with contact tracing, Ruckman said, "It just seems like (we’re) getting a cold shoulder."
Board Member Jason White said in talking with people from other counties in Missouri, city officials there apparently have received better access "so they can identify hot spots and identify trends so they can make informed policy decisions." With Independence, he said, they apparently haven’t been alone in the county with their frustration about data.
"This thing’s going to cycle back around," White said of COVID-19, "and if it does I don't think we’re ready by any stretch. I had a suspicion most citizens were unhappy with getting rid of the health department."
Weir said the biggest benefit of having their own health department, indeed, is direct access to information from the state.
"It’s not being filtered; right now, it’s an extra step," Weir said, adding that some city personnel (herself not included) have more specific information about case locations strictly for the protection of first responders.
"But it’s not public info," Weir said. "If they get called to an address, they need to know what they’re walking into."
Both Heinen and Weir said the best immediate course would be to continue working with the county.
"Other counties do it differently, and if we had the crystal ball, perhaps we wouldn’t have (dispersed the health department), but it was an innovative approach," Weir said. "We’ll keep working with our health department and keep providing them with recommendations."