Health board adds new Tri-Cities members as 2 commissioners slam masks and COVID vaccine

The Benton and Franklin county commissioners have picked seven of the eight members to serve as the reconstituted public health board for the two counties.

A doctor, a pharmacist and an environmental specialist were selected at last week’s health board meeting to join the board.

The county commissioners also decided which four county commissioners from each county will continue on the board. Now the six-member board is made up of all six of the county commissioners from both counties and no public members.

The Washington state Legislature ordered statewide changes to health district boards in 2021 in an effort to take politics out of public health district board proceedings, following turmoil at some health districts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Issues at some health districts included resistance to mask mandates and the bullying of health officials.

At the March meeting of the Benton Franklin Health District Board, two county commissioners who plan to remain on the health district board continued to discuss their concerns about COVID-19 vaccines and mask requirements.

The new board member requirements are intended to add medical expertise to the board and the voice of those who use public health services.

Decisions made at last week’s meeting must still be approved separately by the Benton and the Franklin county commissions.

The Benton Franklin Health District Board is required to have an equal number of elected and nonelected members.

Jillian Legard of the Benton Franklin Health District works on testing water samples in the agency’s lab.
Jillian Legard of the Benton Franklin Health District works on testing water samples in the agency’s lab.

The fourth public seat to balance the four commissioner seats is required to be picked by the American Indian Health Commission. But the commission has not selected a board member for the Tri-Cities area or for some other health district boards in Washington state.

The current Benton Franklin Health District Board has not decided what to do about that board seat.

Public picks for health board

The three public members selected by the board are:

Kathleen Nusbaum, a Kennewick pharmacist and pharmacy manager, who said in her application that she is professionally bound to practice evidence-based medicine and has the training to interpret medical evidence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes vaccination as one of the 10 most important advances in public health in the last century, and Nusbaum gives more than 1,000 vaccinations a year, she said.

Pharmacy is at the intersection of medicine and public health with pharmacists often seeing patients once a month, including patients with serious chronic illnesses, those who are not able to establish care with a doctor and those who do not have homes, she said.

She was the first person in her family to graduate college and has a commitment to “paying it forward,” after doctors, family and coaches helped her gain control over a chronic health condition that caused her to frequently miss school as a child.

Dr. Wassim Khawandi, who oversees kidney dialysis facilities in the Tri-Cities area, said in his application that the “stakes are high when it comes to guarding our communities against environmental, infections and socioeconomic hazards.”

He has watched the Benton Franklin Health District Board over the last three years try to make the best decisions for the health of residents, but without a solid medical background that can be a daunting task, he said.

His education and training in medicine, plus a master of business administration, have contributed to his understanding of both the medical and socioeconomic needs of the Tri-Cities area, he said.

He has been a doctor in the Tri-Cities for 18 years and has been president of the Benton Franklin County Medical Society. He also has served as a volunteer at Grace Clinic, the Tri-Cities free clinic.

Marcella Appel, the water resource project manager for the Benton Conservation District, said in her application that the health district’s environmental health programs are vital to the protection of the community.

The conservation district evaluates scientific data, communicates about issues with the public and implements action to reduce the source of problems that include water toxins, harmful algal blooms and waterborne diseases, she said.

Her experience on other boards has taught her that strong board leadership requires listening to and trusting the expertise and knowledge of the staff, she said in her application.

The board needs to lead, but not get in the way, she said. She is trained in evaluating data to implement community programs protective of public health and would bring the same thoughtful, nonpartisan approach to the board, she said.

Opposition to Washington policy

The Benton County commissioners who have volunteered to remain on the health district board are Will McKay and Michael Alvarez. Franklin County commissioners remaining on the board would be Clint Didier and Rocky Mullen.

During public comment at the board meeting Wednesday several people said they were concerned about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and that gift cards that are given out at some events should not be used as a “bribe” to increase vaccination levels.

Columbia Basin College partnered with the Washington State Department of Health’s Care-A-Van to offer COVID-19 vaccines on the Pasco campus in 2021. Gift cards are sometimes given out at free clinics.
Columbia Basin College partnered with the Washington State Department of Health’s Care-A-Van to offer COVID-19 vaccines on the Pasco campus in 2021. Gift cards are sometimes given out at free clinics.

Didier said he wants the health board at its April meeting to discuss sending a letter to the Washington state Department of Health opposing gift cards for those getting COVID-19 vaccinations.

Didier said no one in his family was vaccinated against the virus and that the vaccine is harmful.

McKay said his children are not vaccinated against COVID-19.

The American Medical Association said earlier in the pandemic that educating the public about the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine was an urgent priority. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends COVID vaccination.

McKay said he hopes the next person hired as health officer will put up a fight against Washington state regulations that the district health board opposes.

He said the majority of the board disagreed with state requirements that masks be worn in public places during part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Washington state Department of Health’s only remaining masking mandate — that masks are worn in health care, long-term care facilities and adult jails and prisons — expires April 3.

An offer has been made to hire Dr. Aren Giske as the health officer to replace Dr. Amy Person, who took a job as regional health officer for the Washington state Department of Health. As of last week, details of the offer were still being worked out.

Dr. Larry Jecha, interim health officer, said that the health district is not always popular, but “we have the best interest of the health of our community at heart.”