Jim Beam column:Let health experts call shots

Published 7:45 am Sunday, September 19, 2021

Republicans, who control the governorship and the legislatures in 23 states, have passed 30 bills in 18 of those states that voting rights experts say restrict access to the ballot.

Now, GOP lawmakers in more than half the states in this country are taking away the powers that state and health officials have to protect the public’s health. And attorneys general in 24 states, including Louisiana, are threatening to sue President Joe Biden over his vaccination mandates.

Louisiana legislators at their regular session tried to restrict the public health authority of the state’s next governor. However, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed the bill, saying he didn’t want to tie the hands of the next governor to be able to properly respond to a public health emergency.

A Kaiser Health News (KHN) review found that at least 26 states have successfully enacted laws restricting the government’s public health authority.

Arkansas legislators, for example, banned face mask mandates except in private businesses or state-run health care settings. They called the mandates “a burden on the public, peace, health and safety of the citizens of this state.”

Idaho, which is currently in a crisis of health care, will let county commissioners, most of whom have no public health expertise, veto countywide public health orders.

KHN said in at least 16 states, legislators have limited the power of public health officials to order mask mandates, quarantines or isolation. In some cases, they gave themselves or local elected politicians the authority to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

At least 17 states passed laws banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates and made it easier to get around vaccine requirements. Another nine states have new laws banning or limiting mask mandates.

The Associated Press notes that much of this restrictive legislation takes effect as COVID-19 hospitalizations in some areas are climbing to the highest numbers at any point in the pandemic, and children are back in school.

Public health academics and officials are frustrated that they, instead of the virus, have become the enemy. They are worried about the effect the laws will have on future disease outbreaks like being able to quarantine people during a measles outbreak.

An Arkansas state senator against mask mandates said, “What the people of Arkansas want is the decision to be left in their hands, to them and their family. It’s time to take the power away from the so-called experts, whose ideas have been woefully inadequate.”

In Utah and Iowa, schools cannot require masks. In Alabama, schools cannot require COVID-19 vaccinations. Montana is curbing isolation and quarantine powers, preventing limits on religious gatherings and banning employers from requiring vaccinations for COVID-19, the flu or anything else.

County commissioners in Indiana have the power to review public health orders. A county public health officer said he’s considering stepping down after more than a quarter-century in the role. The AP said if he does, he’ll join at least 303 public health leaders who have retired, resigned or been fired since the pandemic began.

Local legislators are getting help from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-backed conservative group that promoted a model bill to restrict the emergency powers of governors and other officials.

A public health director for Bismarck, N.D., testified against a measure prohibiting mask mandates and received an onslaught of hate mail and demands that she be fired.

A former Oregon Democratic state senator said some of today’s politicians may come to regret these new laws. He was a sponsor of 1989 legislation during the AIDS crisis. It banned employers from requiring health care workers, as a condition of employment, to get an HIV vaccine, if one became available.

The former senator said that law, 32 years later, means Oregon cannot require health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He calls lawmaking a “messy business” and said he would not have pushed his bill if he had known then what he knows now.

Who should protect our public health? A Baton Rouge management official answered that when she said, “Gov. Edwards has been relentless in his efforts to mitigate the health risks of the COVID-19 virus infecting our state, in spite of severe criticism and obstruction. His priority has been and continues to be to protect our citizens and our children.”

Edwards and the public health officials he consults have kept me and members of my family virus-free and alive so far. So, I don’t want the Legislature, a police jury, a parish council, a city council or any other local political body with no health expertise deciding what’s best for my health and a longer life.