LINCOLN – After barriers for local public health departments came to light during COVID-19, State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha brought a bill that would address health mandates to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee Feb. 19.
LB637 would give local public health department’s clear authority over the spread of contagious diseases and public health issues and the ability to issue directed health mandates for local communities.
“Localized measures put into place have a significant impact on the spread and surge of COVID cases,” Vargas said. “We have the ability to save more lives on the local level - by giving health experts the tools they need.”
Currently, if local public health departments need to issue a directed health mandate, it must first be approved by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
“The process is very cumbersome, and I’ve been told that local public health failed us,” said proponent testifier Adi Pour, health director of the Douglas County Health Department.
Pour said the local health department couldn’t get approval from the state to create a Douglas County mask mandate. Instead, the city council created an ordinance to initiate a mask mandate, which took longer.
Gov. Pete Ricketts opposed a statewide mask mandate, leaving it up to city councils or local public health departments. City councils can create mask mandates through ordinances, but local public health departments need approval from the state. The bill would allow them to issue DHMs without state permission.
Other local public health departments struggled to get cooperation from city councils to extend mask mandate ordinances after it wasn’t initially approved by DHHS.
After the health director at Central District Health Department Teresa Anderson couldn’t get a mask mandate approved by the state, it was left up to city councils. Central District includes Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties.
Anderson said “our hands are tied” and supported the bill because the Grand Island citywide mask mandate extension was rejected by the city council Feb. 9. The mask mandate expired Feb. 23. Other cities also debated mask mandates, as expirations approach.
Local public health departments consist of half elected and appointed board members from various backgrounds ranging from physicians, dentists, city council members, county board members and more.
“Most public health departments have significant expertise. Decisions are made in the very best of science,” said Health Director Jeremy Eschliman of the Two Rivers Public Health Department, covering Buffalo, Dawson, Franklin, Gosper, Harlan, Kearney and Phelp counties.
The League of Nebraska Municipalities, DHHS and several community members opposed the bill.
“This (bill) would make it impossible for the state to have a united front on DHMs and could cause inconsistency,” said Ashley Newmyer, chief data strategist for DHHS.
Legal counsel Christy Abraham from the League of Nebraska Municipalities said the bill would overreach and “outright repeal our authority.”
Other community members didn’t like the prospect of local health departments creating DHMs and were concerned about the lack of public voices on the board because half of the members are appointed by the mayor, according to statute.
“This legislation makes it easier for harmful regulations to be enacted and cuts the community out of decisions,” said Allie French, founder of Nebraskans against Government Overreach.
Vargas said current law allows the state to unilaterally approve or deny DHMs, whereas the local public health departments have more local representation in decision making.
“I think we’re actually putting more balance in place,” Vargas said. “This bill will let a board filled with many other people to use a majority vote.”