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Candidates vying for Yakima County Commission District 1, from left, incumbent Vicki Baker and Amanda McKinney.

District 1 Yakima County commissioner candidates disagree on how the COVID-19 pandemic should’ve been handled and the role they want to fill on the Yakima Health District Board of Health.

Challenger Amanda McKinney says she would have pushed harder as a member of the Board of Health and communicated more openly about decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic. Incumbent Vicki Baker said the situation isn’t as straightforward as McKinney makes it out to be, and argues she’s been a strong advocate for local control and reopening.

Baker was appointed last year, and has been the face of the county’s response as the commission’s chairperson. Both candidates are Republicans with business backgrounds. McKinney is a mortgage broker and Baker is co-owner of the Grocery Outlet.

Yakima County’s first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported March 12, the same day Yakima city and county officials declared a state of emergency after the positive test results came in the night before. Late March 22, the health district and health officer Dr. Teresa Everson issued a stay-at-home order for Yakima County. A statewide order followed the next evening.

The goal was to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and limit hospitalizations and deaths. Astria Regional hospital closed in January, leaving the city of Yakima with just one hospital — Virginia Mason Memorial. Yakima County saw a peak in cases in early June, when it had more than 700 cases per 100,000 over two weeks, the highest on the West Coast. Peak hospitalizations followed in mid-June.

Board of Health

During a League of Women Voters forum Oct. 8, McKinney said she would have done more as a commissioner to advocate for the community during Board of Health meetings. The seven-member board includes all three county commissioners, two community members and two city officials from municipalities. Current members are Baker and Commissioner Ron Anderson; Dr. Sean Cleary, citizen member; Dr. Kay Funk, a Yakima City Council member; Gail Weaver, a citizen member who also serves on the Memorial board; and Barbara Harrer, the mayor of Harrah. The third commissioner seat is vacant and was held by the late Norm Childress.

Under state law, the Yakima Health District is an independent governmental entity. RCW 70.05.070 says the local health officer has the authority to “control and prevent the spread of any dangerous, contagious or infectious diseases that may occur within his or her jurisdiction.”

The law says the health board is in charge of enforcing public health statutes through the local health officer or administrative officer. It enacts local rules and regulations, and controls and prevents dangerous and contagious infections.

McKinney said the purpose of the board is to make sure the health district staff are doing things “in the tone and tenor” of what the community wants.

“I would have collaborated with (board members) and had a united front,” she said. “I would have liked to see a stronger board who would say at times, ‘We supported this decision or we didn’t,’ so there’s an explanation of who is in control.”

McKinney said she would have made the county’s phased reopening plan and application public and collaborated with other counties from the beginning.

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“We didn’t have anyone championing for Yakima County,” she said.

Baker said getting consensus is easier said than done, and she tried many times to bring board members together to make decisions and changes. She said most closure and reopening decisions are made at the state level, with the exception of the school openings, which were decided by local school superintendents in concert with the health district.

“I recognize there’s confusion about the health officer and the role and part of that is what the Legislature did. They gave so much power to our governor and our health officer — they do have an amazing amount of control in the pandemic,” she said.

She followed that up Wednesday in a KIT radio interview, suggesting one way to make a change would be through a citizen-led initiative on the statewide ballot.

Baker, Anderson and Childress signed on to a letter with 18 other counties May 14 requesting more local control from the state. More recently, Baker said Yakima County joined forces with other modified Phase 1 counties to advocate for reopening. Gov. Jay Inslee moved those counties to Phase 2 status under the state’s four-stage coronavirus reopening plan Tuesday.

Elected officials also have to follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, which requires a public meeting with notice when two or more commissioners are discussing or considering a matter within their authority.

Hospitals

Another question during the League of Women Voters forum focused on the closure of Astria Regional earlier this year, and the status of Virginia Mason Memorial. Virginia Mason is in merger discussions with CHI Franciscan. Both of the county’s hospital systems are private nonprofits, and the candidates said county commissioners don’t have much of a say.

McKinney said it’s important for the public to be aware of hospital finances and described the Astria bankruptcy filing and Regional closure as “horrific.”

“The nice thing is we had a community who wrapped their arms around all those people who were without a job and we’ve found a way to retain a lot of good workers,” she said.

Baker said COVID-19 has been rough financially on hospitals, including Memorial. While commissioners aren’t involved in decision-making, she said there is concern about patient transfers outside the community. She also said the two remaining Astria hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish play an important role in caring for underserved communities, and it is important they stay open.