Tri-County Health’s Dr. John Douglas on being on the forefront of a public health crisis, backlash and reopening

Dr. John Douglas sits for a portrait at his home. Dr. Douglas is the Executive Director of the Tri-County Health Department. Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Now one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the ad hoc home office Dr. John Douglas created in his Denver basement still holds remnants of last March’s maelstrom. 

“I mean, it’s a wreck,” Douglas said from his workspace on a recent Monday afternoon. “My wife hates coming in here. I haven’t had time to straighten it up.”

It’s a space the czar of Aurora’s local health agency, the Tri-County Health Department, has come to know well. It’s where he’s spent umpteen hours, often seven days a week, rifling through data, conferring with colleagues and crafting sometimes contentious guidance to combat the pervasive health crisis. 

He recalled growing particularly familiar with the lair the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day 2020, which is when Gov. Jared Polis shuttered bars, restaurants, theaters and other gathering places for in-person commerce.

That’s when Douglas’s personal sense of time turned turbid, he said.

 “We thought that was a good move,” Douglas said of Polis’ March 16, 2020 announcement. “And I would say that’s when things began to become a blur.”

For some 53 weeks, Douglas has been at the bleeding edge of the Aurora region’s response to a pandemic that has now claimed at least 1,564 lives in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, according to the latest county statistics.

The Harvard-trained doctor has been the confidant of various local government leaders, and vilified by others who chose to spurn his health mandates. The Douglas County Board of Commissioners went as far as to prepare to leave Tri-County’s jurisdiction entirely, only to later renege on their maneuver and agree to a short-term agreement with the agency. 

“It was somewhat distracting to be dealing with that, but I think to a large extent it was a misunderstanding,” he said, pointing to the shapeshifting galaxy of public health orders that flowed in and out of state and local agencies in the months leading up to the initial decision in Douglas County. 

But more than political targets, Douglas and his staffers were — to his admitted surprise — also the recipients of physical threats as consternation over the virus proliferated. 

In early May, a man emailed the local health department’s board of directors, stating: “We the people are done with this f***ing bulls***, and you are about to start a hot-shooting, no-bulls*** civil war. End the lockdown now or face severe consequences.”

Douglas later received vague threats he would be doxxed after messages emerged claiming to know where he lived. 

“That was a little unnerving for my wife,” he said. “So we tried to take some extra precautions, but honestly I fared much better than many of my colleagues in smaller communities because the metro area is big, and it can be somewhat anonymous. But if you live in a smaller community, people see you when you go to the grocery store, or pick up your kids from school and this kind of thing, and I certainly didn’t face anything like that.”

“Our governor is saying we can have a normal July, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation at all — maybe even June.” — Dr. John Douglas, Tri-County Health

Earlier this month, state legislators granted initial approval to a measure seeking to specifically outlaw posting the personal information of public health workers online, granting them similar protections currently afforded to law enforcement personnel.

Going forward, Douglas said he believes the image of state and local health departments like his will forever be changed in the eyes of the public, with shades of both positive and negative tones. 

“I would like to believe the good part — that is public health is necessary, public health was an important part of this response — is at least as well understood as the negative part — that is, you know, these dictators are taking our freedoms away, and this kind of thing,” said Douglas, who spent a decade working for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “Although both of them I think are more visible now.”

Nowadays, the North Carolina native is unabashedly more sanguine than he was during those never-ending work weeks last spring. 

“I feel lots of light,” he said. “The only clouds, to continue the metaphor, would be the variants — What are they going to do? Are they going to upset the apple cart in a meaningful way? And then what proportion of the population is going to choose not to get the vaccine? The more people who choose not to get it, the more virus circulating there will be, and the more chances for mutations, so the more chances for things to kind of stutter along in a way that none of us would like to see.”

About 20% of residents in Aurora’s three counties, or some 242,000 people had been vaccinated as of last week, according to Tri-County data. Slightly more than half of those who have been vaccinated have completed the full course of the inoculation. 

Mirroring recent announcements made by Polis, Douglas offered cautious optimism that Aurorans could reach a retooled state of normalcy by Independence Day. 

“Our governor is saying we can have a normal July, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation at all — maybe even June,” he said. 

In the meantime, Douglas will remain tethered to the Zoom-based ether of his basement, still spending about 90% of his time on COVID-related work. He said he’s come to favor his more domestic work life, and he doesn’t miss his 30-minute commute to Greenwood Village. 

“I’ve been very lucky, you know I’m not like our grocery store workers or even my friends who work in ICUs,” he said. “I’ve got the privilege of being able to make sausage, if you will, from my basement.”