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The World Health Organization defines health as, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Building on that, the American Public Health Association adds, “Public health promotes and protects the health of people and communities where they live, learn, work and play.” Taking this in the most literal form, the wellness of our population is measured not just on a single value, and it is best served when the leaders closest to that population make informed decisions to improve community health.

Since March, Kittitas County has struggled with the effects of COVID-19. It has placed strains on our society not seen in our lifetimes and forced difficult decisions whose effects only future generations will fully grasp. As leaders of our local efforts, we have had to face the very folks most impacted by our policies. Being in this pandemic now for almost a year has demanded growth in our relationships and objective analysis of our decisions. Together we have talked, argued, and ultimately agreed that the fight against COVID-19 is more than data updated on a dashboard. It is a fight to preserve the bonds of fellowship that have connected our county’s residents, businesses and institutions for generations.

COVID-19 has demonstrated our county’s health is more than “merely the absence of disease”. The livelihoods of families, the education of children, and the simple comfort of running into an acquaintance without fearing harsh words of judgment also measure our collective health. Our residents know one another, and for many those relationships span decades. If these connections are to survive the next year, our local understanding must take the highest precedence.

But Gov. Inslee’s newest plan to combine COVID-19 data reporting and reopening phases into multi-county regions cuts the heart out of our ability as local leaders to administer, as defined, public health in the pursuit of improved individual health. By conjoining Kittitas County with counties over six times our size, we can no longer expect local success to mean resuming in-class education, reopening failing businesses and rehiring laid-off employees. Instead, we will be dependent on distant counties with different demographics, industries, educational systems, and government cooperation. At a critical moment when local businesses and local leaders need more local authority and recognition of our local differences — the governor’s proposal does just the opposite. We were adamantly opposed to this new regional concept when it was proposed in November, and we are even more opposed now given our understanding of where this virus has had the largest spread.

The data has shown Kittitas County’s restaurants, gyms, theaters, churches and schools have not been where the majority of disease has occurred. Given the number of travelers that come through our county, we should in fact be shining a grateful light of recognition on employees for their work ensuring prevention measures have been followed. Instead, our greatest risk has always been the most difficult to prevent — unregulated casual social gatherings. We, as local leaders understand our citizens. They trust us to help them do the right thing to protect our county from this pandemic. This is what the Governor’s plan fails to acknowledge. While we will have no ability to educate and influence the over half-million combined residents just in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties to make the right decisions that benefit our businesses and schools, we will be left to struggle with trying to preserve what is left of Kittitas County’s collective health. Our ability to serve you, the citizens who elected and appointed us, has been virtually removed.

We will continue to work together as your elected representatives and public health expert to mutually support policies which can beat COVID-19’s devastation and rehabilitate our health as a county. This mutual support includes our united opposition to a regionalized plan. We recognize the difficult choices COVID-19 has placed on the governor during this time, but leadership requires revisiting choices made as new realizations occur and, if needed, changing them. Let us do our job. Let the local leaders that understand the communities and people that live, learn, work and play here bring back the full measure of health that Kittitas County deserves.

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