COVID-19 cases dwindle, but Alabama lawmakers continue to push for public health reform
COVID-19 cases dwindle, but Alabama lawmakers continue to push for public health reform

COVID-19 cases dwindle, but Alabama lawmakers continue to push for public health reform

COVID-19 cases plummet in Alabama and across the United States

The demand for vaccine is dwindling and mask mandates are being lifted nationally.

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Life seems to be returning to normal. The 24-hour news channels have shifted focus from public health to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But government officials in capitals across the country are still battling the pandemic nearly two years since the height of closures and shutdowns.

Alabama is no different as lawmakers pass bills that regulate the public health administration. However, the number of bills is less than a year ago.

“I think there is still work to be done,” said State Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and sponsor of such a piece of legislation in SB255, which prohibits the state health officer from issuing an emergency order without the governor’s OK.

“Whether there is the political will to address these issues today, I doubt,” said Orr, who also sponsored legislation passed during a special session last fall. prohibits so-called “vaccine passes”.

He added: “It is an election year. Usually in election years, the political will to take controversial issues off is sometimes off.

Legislation of the pandemic

The new measures awaiting resolution in the State House include:

  • SB255requiring that any future “emergency” issued by the Alabama State Health Officer that “restricts, restricts, or otherwise burdens” private residents or businesses does not occur until it is approved by the governor.
  • HB447sponsored by rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, prohibits a county health officer, in an emergency, from issuing a directive unless the State Health Officer gives written approval.
  • HB188sponsored by rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, reduces Foundation Program funding to public K-12 schools which adopts mask mandates. Sorrell, in an interview with AL.com said Monday that he would likely change how schools are punished for approving a mask mandate, acknowledging that reducing their funding through the Foundation program was “too harsh.”
  • SB254sponsored by Senator Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, demands that day care centers allow parents and legal guardians to come in during a public health emergency.
  • HB32sponsored by rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to receive the COVID-19 vaccine if the employee for any reason objects “of a personal conscience” based on religious beliefs, medical reasons, or prior recovery from COVID-19.
  • HB29, sponsored by rep. Tommy Hanes, R-Bryant, gives an employee a “private lawsuit” against his or her employer for damages caused by a negative reaction from an employer mandate that he or she receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The law also prohibits the state from recognizing federal vaccine mandates.

A sign outside Frida’s Mexican restaurant in Northport, Ala. in July 2020. The sign informs patrons that masks are required to come under Alabama’s government mandate due to coronavirus. Legislation introduced in 2022 challenges future mask mandates and who is authorized to issue health orders in the future. (Ben Flanagan / AL.com)

This session does not include legislation that would place more authority in the hands of the Legislative Assembly to expand public health emergencies. Similar legislation introduced in Parliament and the Senate last year stalled.

Measures to regulate contact tracing or creation of citizens’ health counseling Both introduced last year – – did not appear during this year’s session.

Even bills that have captured traction in other states have not appeared in Alabama. Notable among these are legislation restricting medical boards or other authorities from restricting off-label treatments of COVID-19.

Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation in November that protects doctors from disciplinary action by licensing boards, even doctors provide misinformation about vaccines. For other states – both Republican and Democratic – 20 other states weigh similar laws, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards. Alabama is not one of them.

“Last year, there was a stream of bills specific to the COVID-19 situation,” Garrett said. “There is a bill that will deal with mask mandates, and there are a few other remnants (of legislation from last year) underway, but they have not been discussed.”

Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer who led Alabama through the COVID-19 pandemic, said he is not concerned about the legislation presented in Montgomery this session.

“I think the Legislature has respected our ability to do the best work we can to work closely with them and create consensus, and that we are all on the same team,” Harris said. “Ultimately, we try to bring our expertise and solve these health problems as they arise, and they respect that.”

Governor’s supervision

Kay Ivey

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey gives a COVID-19 update during a news conference at the Alabama Capitol Building in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, March 4, 2021.Mickey Welsh / The Montgomery Advertiser via AP

Harris said he also has no concerns with Orr’s legislation, which specifically addresses his office. Harris said the legislation “is completely consistent in how we work anyway.”

In fact, Harris and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey were seen together throughout the beginning and most of the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their joint appearances took place during the news conference and issued health updates.

Orr said he “had no problem with the way Scott Harris conducted his office during the pandemic.”

“Do I agree with every decision? No,” said Orr. “But I do not agree with my wife in every decision. That’s to be expected. “

Orr said: “But the problem is this, we have someone in the position who is put in power by the State Public Health Council and it consists predominantly of unnamed and unconfirmed persons who are above our state public health agency.”

Related story: Alabama Health Officers: Wait for COVID Pandemic Before Changing Health Policy

Orr said the state health officer has the authority to unilaterally enter into a state of emergency for up to 120 days. He said the officer’s orders could not be stopped by any elected official, nor can his position be held accountable to an elected official.

“The premise of this bill is to say, ‘OK, but we need someone who has been put to power by the people, and who the people have probably entrusted such power through the ballot box, to have the last word on such an emergency order. comes from the public health worker. “

Orr said that while Ivey and Harris “worked very well together,” a future public health worker could have a different approach than a sitting governor, placing the two at odds.

Orr said the courts would be the only way to execute a health officer’s order, and that could be a skewed scenario given that “the justice system is not designed for quick decisions, as if a day or two may be necessary to control the power of the health officer. “

County health officials

Dr.  Bernard Eichold, Dr.  Scott Harris

Outgoing Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold (left) receives a plaque from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris during a ceremony outside the Keeler Memorial Building on Thursday, March 3, 2022 in downtown Mobile, Ala. Eichold, 71, is retiring after more than 31 years as a health worker for Mobile County. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Garrett’s bill, first introduced last year, regrets some of the authority given to Jefferson and Mobile counties health officers.

The two counties have health agencies that operate differently from the state’s 65 other county health offices, which report directly to the state’s health officer.

Jefferson and Mobile counties receive direct federal funding and are classified as separate jurisdictions within the Alabama Department of Public Health. Both health agencies were structured decades ago and have far-reaching authority over their jurisdictions.

Related story: Two Alabama counties have authority to shut down. The rest do not.

Dr. Mark Wilson, Jefferson County Health Officer, and Dr. Bernard Eichold, den recently retired Mobile County Health Officerused their authorities early in the pandemic to shut down indoor dining.

Their orders came just before Harris decided to have all indoor eateries closed across the country.

Garret said his legislation would change a “perception” that the two county health authorities had the authority to “go junk” and allow their health care workers to take action beyond the rest of the state.

“For whatever reason, these two counties are different,” Garrett said. “I filed (the bill) last year in response to people who thought the county health officers did things beyond what the state health officer did. That was not the case.”

Garrett said Wilson and Eichold, during discussions with them last year, were OK with the bill. He said Wilson told him that his health orders for Jefferson County were implemented after consultation with Harris.

“They agreed, but it was never formalized,” Garrett said. “I think this (bill) gives the state health officer a chance to make sure a county official does something that is not necessary.”

Wilson, in a statement to AL.com, said county health officers “are already accountable to the state health officer.” He said HB477 is “in line with my practice as a county health officer during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Wilson said, “I was always careful to consult with the state health officer before issuing any county-wide orders regarding the pandemic.”

Harris said Garrett’s legislation does not change the way health agencies in Mobile and Jefferson counties are set up under Alabama law, though it does add an extra layer of control and balance with Harris.

“The legislature is free to do what they want, but it’s a system we’ve had for a long time and it works well,” Harris said. “Seventy-five years ago, most of Alabama’s counties had a county health officer, but over time, those powers have been transferred to the state because those counties did not want to continue paying a doctor to be a health officer. In Mobile County and Jefferson County, they are functional independent because they have their own funding mechanism and a health council. “

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