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A shift in the balance of leadership has resulted in a new incident commander in Kittitas County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office Operations Commander Darren Higashiyama is taking over the incident command position from Kittitas County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson, effective Friday. Higashiyama said Larson still maintains public health authority under statute requirements.

“That is his main job,” Higashiyama said. “The Incident Management Team’s job is to assist everybody in the county.”

With the peripheral requirements vested under the IMT, Higashiyama said the workload placed on Larson as incident commander was extreme. He said the IMT will focus on issues regarding business reopenings, economic recovery and the resumption of education in the coming weeks.

“It was a lot on Dr. Larson’s plate,” Higashiyama said. “We decided to restructure a little bit to take some stuff off his plate. He’ll still be part of the team. He still has statute authority to issue health orders, and we sit down virtually every day talking. He’s still a leader in our community.”

With the goal of keeping residents safe from the virus, Higashiyama said Larson still has the authority to issue recommendations such as the recent recommendation against in-class teaching.

“He understands that the school districts are autonomous,” he said. “We will back their decision, whatever their decision is. Our job is to assist either way.”

With the Kittitas School District’s decision to resume in-class teaching against regional public health recommendations, Higashiyama said his team will assist the district in safely achieving its objective, helping provide personal protective equipment and technical information if requested.

“We have safety officers, people who can go in and check and provide reports,” he said. “We can assist in that. The health officer gives his professional opinion to them, and that’s his job.”

In the immediate future, Higashiyama said the goals of the team are to focus on accommodate students returning to Central Washington University as safely as possible in light of the virus.

“A lot of times you can’t stop spread, but we try to mitigate it as much as possible,” he said. “It’s a virus and you can’t stop it 100%, but you can try. That’s what we’re doing.”

BOARD OF HEALTH

Kittitas County Commissioner and Kittitas County Board of Health Vice Chair Brett Wachsmith said his understanding is that the decision to shift management responsibilities was an internal decision, with Dr. Larson initiating the conversation. Dr. Larson and the Kittitas County Public Health Department were unavailable for comment as of press time.

“Darren has years worth of experience running these types of incident command,” Wachsmith said. “I think it was just a good time to transition. That way Dr. Larson can free up his time to focus on the public health aspect of the pandemic.”

With all three county commissioners signing off on an Aug. 25 letter issued in support of the Kittitas School District’s decision to resume in-class learning, Wachsmith said the decisions being made during the pandemic are extremely difficult to navigate. Despite the difficulties, he said he feels the Board of County Commissioners have been consistent in expressing its support in everyone involved in the decision-making process.

“That decision ultimately lies with the school boards to make,” he said. “If they deem that the best decision for their students and families, we just wanted to show we do support that. It is a tight line to walk, but we haven’t lost our confidence in Public Health by supporting in-class participation.”

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