West Covina City Council votes to quit L.A. County health department over COVID rules

Alleging the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has failed its residents and harmed its businesses during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the West Covina City Council in a split decision this week voted to begin the process of forming its own health department.

The move would eventually free the 16-square-mile city of about 110,000 residents from health mandates handed down by the county’s health department — such as bar and restaurant closures related to COVID-19 — but not until it creates a department of its own that meets state health requirements. It would not free the city from state health mandates.

The move comes at a time when various small cities in the area have expressed interest in going it alone on health matters, as differences of opinion over pandemic-related shutdowns have caused tensions and disagreements at the municipal level. West Covina could be a test case for them to watch.

During Tuesday’s at times contentious hearing, Mayor Letty Lopez-Viado said that there was consensus in the city that the county department had not provided “services of the caliber that everybody would like,” and that her goal was to ensure better healthcare for residents moving forward.

City Manager David Carmany said he backed the plan.

“The No. 1 common theme I hear from residents and businesses and people that are affected by the pandemic — and it’s not just people that have great jobs and great healthcare, but it’s people on the fringe — is they want us to get it together, and so that’s why this is on your agenda tonight,” Carmany said.

He added: “From a city manager’s perspective, from a municipal perspective, I think the county and the state government have failed to implement policies to effectively respond. It just hasn’t been sufficient.”

Councilman Brian Tabatabai, the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote approving the break, pushed back against his colleagues, noting repeatedly and with alarm that the city had not conducted any analysis of what the move would mean logistically or financially.

When he questioned Carmany about what the annual and start-up costs to the city would be — citing studies from other cities that suggested such costs could run into the tens of millions of dollars, if not more — the city manager acknowledged that his staff hadn’t crunched the numbers yet but would try to keep costs manageable in relation to the city’s $67-million general fund.

In an interview, Tabatabai called that unlikely and said the vote, without a full analysis, was wildly irresponsible. He said it reeked of politics more than any real interest in public health. He said it was unconscionable.

“The rush to do this, it doesn’t feel like a serious move,” he said. “It really feels like it was more of a political move.”

In its own response Wednesday, the L.A. County Public Health Department said it was aware the West Covina council had “voted to terminate its decades-old public health services agreement.”

But before that happens, the county agency said, the city must show that it is capable of providing a long list of “basic public health services to their residents” that the county provides with tax dollars, including recording birth and death certificates, controlling communicable disease, maintaining environmental health and sanitation, providing maternal and child health and nutrition, and fighting chronic disease, and other social and occupational factors affecting health.

“Once West Covina City’s public health department is recognized by the state as a local public health jurisdiction, L.A. County Public Health will work with the city to transfer all of the work required by a local public health department,” the county department said. “Until West Covina has a state-recognized city public health department, L.A. County Public Health will continue to serve the residents of West Covina in its current capacity.”

The county department also said that all of its health orders regarding COVID-19, and those of the state, remain in effect, and that it “will continue to enforce those infection control measures within the city of West Covina.”

The city’s decision to break away from the county health department — which it called an historic and uncharted step spurred on by the county’s “enforcement of orders and quarantine regulations” — comes in the form of a city ordinance that must be forwarded to the county by March 1.

From there, West Covina will have to go through several more steps to end its contract with the county and separate its health services.

“Establishing a city health department will take time, planning and coordination through a process that has not been accomplished in decades,” a city statement said. “The city does not anticipate having a health department at the level of Pasadena or Long Beach by the 1stof July, but intends to provide services that are responsive to the community’s needs.”

Lopez-Viado said the transition “is not going to happen overnight.”

Tabatabai said that is clear, because no plans are in place.

He also said the vote showed a lack of humility on the part of his colleagues, who were attempting to blame the county for COVID-19’s devastation and pretending without evidence that the city could have done better on its own.

“The reality — all of the suffering that businesses and residents, all of us, have gone through — is not because of decisions of public health departments or governors, it’s because of COVID. It’s because of a pandemic. That’s really the issue that’s caused havoc,” he said. “Prior to COVID-19, we have never had it on the agenda about starting our own public health department. COVID-19 is the problem.”

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