The nation’s public health officials are terribly worried about a virulent new threat. Eight states are already in its grip, and more are teetering toward the abyss.

No, it’s not a new COVID variant. The threat that is keeping public health officials awake at night is the rapid spread of new state laws putting limits on the authority of public health officials.

A recent report by the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Network for Public Health Law concludes that legislation limiting flexibility or stripping authority from public health officials poses a “threat to life and health” and “violates the constitutional separation of powers.”

Coincidentally, that’s what much of the public is saying about public health officials. As anger mutates into new laws in state after state, the association that lobbies for county and city health officials is trying to argue that limits on government power will kill everyone you love.

“To save lives and prevent disease,” the report intones, “public health emergencies require swift responses and nimble adjustments.”

The problem with this argument is that public health officials have destroyed their credibility with imperious one-way actions, moving swiftly to impose restrictive measures but seeing no urgency to remove them again, often in flat defiance of scientific evidence.

For example, Los Angeles County is continuing to mandate temperature checks as a condition of entering many places, even though the Centers for Disease Controls has concluded that these are useless to detect COVID infections. And last November, L.A. County Public Health ordered restaurants to completely shut down outdoor dining based on no evidence at all that it posed a health risk. “Nimble” isn’t the word I’d choose to describe it.

Now that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have forced the public release of the emails of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, we are learning more about what public health officials knew, when they knew it, and what they did to keep everyone else from finding out. Their credibility problem is growing worse by the hour.

And here comes the swinging pendulum.

In Ohio, the legislature passed a bill that limits the duration of a public health emergency to 90 days unless the General Assembly votes to extend it. The bill also gave the legislature the power to rescind any order of the state public health department related to preventing the spread of infectious disease, and it limited the power of local health boards to order quarantines or isolation.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Mike DeWine, who was the first governor in the nation to shut down schools statewide. And then the Ohio legislature overrode the veto.

Take the temperature of that.

New laws in Montana give city and county governing bodies the power to rescind or change the orders of local health boards and prevent those health boards from issuing orders that shut down businesses or limit attendance at religious services.

The North Dakota legislature has prohibited state elected officials or public health officers from issuing mask mandates. Kansas lawmakers have revoked the governor’s power to close businesses or schools during a public health emergency; now only local school boards may make decisions about school closures or attendance limits.

Florida enacted a new law that says local emergency orders automatically expire after seven days and can be extended only with a majority vote of the local governing body, and even then there’s a limit on the total duration of the emergency of 42 days. The law also prohibits local governments from issuing a new, similar emergency order when the 42 days have expired. Texas is considering a law that would strip local health agencies of the power to order emergency actions that are inconsistent with the orders of state authorities.

New laws limiting the power of public health officials have also been enacted in Indiana, Utah and West Virginia, and more states are considering similar legislation.

It’s tough out there.

Public health officials have been departing their jobs in unusually high numbers since last year. The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News reported in August that at least 49 state and local public health officials were out since the start of the pandemic — resigned, retired or fired. Some expressed frustration that the public did not appreciate what they were doing. Former West Virginia public health commissioner Dr. Cathy Slemp, who was forced to resign by Gov. Jim Justice last June, complained, “You feel a duty to serve, and yet it’s really hard in the current environment.”

Well, yes. That’s what happens if you impose “temporary” emergency restrictions on movement, education, commerce and social interaction and then refuse to lift them for months or years, even when the original justification for the emergency no longer exists. Some people may start to think, as “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling did, that “To Serve Man,” is a cookbook.

Susan Shelley is an editorial writer and columnist for the Southern California News Group. [email protected]. Twitter: @Susan_Shelley


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