Most states have cut back public health powers amid pandemic

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Republican legislators in more than half of US states, angered by voters’ lockdowns and mask mandates, are taking away the powers that state and local officials use to protect the public from infectious diseases.

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A Kaiser Health News review found that, in all 50 states, legislators have proposed bills to curb such public health powers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. At least 26 states have passed laws that permanently undermine government authority to protect public health. In three additional states, an executive order, ballot initiative or the state Supreme Court limited public health powers for a long time.

Legislators in Arkansas banned the mask mandate except in private businesses or state-run health care settings, calling them “a burden on the public peace, health and safety of the citizens of this state.” In Idaho, county commissioners, who generally have no public health expertise, can veto public health orders nationwide. And in Kansas and Tennessee, school boards, rather than health officials, have the power to close schools.


President Joe Biden last week announced broader vaccination mandates and other COVID-19 measures, saying he was forced to act in part because of such legislation. told everyone:

-In at least 16 states, legislators have limited the power of public health officials to order — mask mandates, or quarantine or isolation. In some cases, he empowered himself or local elected politicians to stop the spread of infectious disease.

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-At least 17 states passed laws banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates or passports, or making it easier to obtain vaccine requirements.

At least nine states have new laws banning or limiting masks. Executive order or court decision limit five and mask requirements.

Much of this law takes effect because COVID-19 hospitalizations in some areas are climbing by the highest numbers at any point in the pandemic.

Lori Tremmel Freeman, head of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, “We could actually see more people getting sick, injured, hospitalized or even dying, which is an extreme measure of the law and Depends on the deduction of authority.”

Public health academics and officials are frustrated that they have become the enemy rather than the virus. They argue that this will have consequences that will last long beyond this pandemic, undermining their ability to fight the latest COVID-19 surge and future disease outbreaks.

“It’s kind of like having your hands tied in the middle of a boxing match,” said Kelly Vollmer, executive director of the Jefferson County Health Department in Missouri.

But supporters of the new limits say they are a necessary check on executive powers and give lawmakers a voice in protracted emergencies. Arkansas State Sen. Trent Garner, a Republican who co-sponsored his state’s successful bill to ban the mask mandate, said he was trying to reflect the will of the people.

“What the people of Arkansas want is to be left in the hands of him and his family,” Garner said. “It’s time to take power away from the so-called experts, whose views are woefully inadequate.”

After initially signing the bill, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed regret, calling a special legislative session in early August asking lawmakers to make an exception for schools. The MPs refused. The law is currently blocked by an Arkansas judge who deemed it unconstitutional. Legal battles are on in other states as well.

The Montana Legislature passed some of the most restrictive laws of all, severely curtailing the public health’s quarantine and isolation powers, increasing the power of local elected officials over local health boards, banning religious gatherings, and banning employers. Vaccinations for COVID-19, flu or anything else out of necessity – including health care settings.

Losing the ability to order a quarantine has left health officer Karen Sullivan of Montana’s Butte-Silver Bow Health Department, who is terrified of what is to come — not only during this pandemic but in the future as well. for the outbreak.

“Relying on ethics and goodwill is not a good public health practice,” she said.

Freeman said his group of city and county health officials has little influence and resources, especially compared to the US Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed conservative group that has developed a model for restricting the emergency powers of governors and other officials. promoted the bill. According to the KHN review, the draft law has inspired dozens of state-level bills. At least 15 states passed laws limiting emergency powers. In some states, governors can no longer establish masked mandates, and their executive orders can be reversed by legislators.

Jonathan Hounschild, director of the ALEC Task Force on Communications and Technology, said the new laws are meant to reduce the power of governors and restore the balance of power between the states’ executive branches and legislatures. “Governors are elected, but they were delegating a lot of authority to the public health officer they often appointed,” Hohnschild said.

When the Indiana legislature overrode the governor’s veto to pass a bill that gave county commissioners the power to review public health orders, Dr. David Welsh, public health officer in rural Ripley County, was devastated.

People immediately stopped calling him to report COVID-19 violations. “It was like turning off a light switch,” Welsh said.

He is considering leaving the post. If he does, he will join at least 303 public health leaders who have retired, resigned or been fired…

Credit: / Arkansas

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