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Most states have cut back public health powers amid pandemic

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

A Kaiser Health News review of hundreds of pieces of legislation found that, in all 50 states, legislators have proposed bills to curb such public health powers since the COVID-19 pandemic began. While some governors vetoed bills that passed, at least 26 states pushed through laws that permanently weaken government authority to protect public health. In three additional states, an executive order, ballot initiative or state Supreme Court ruling limited long-held public health powers. More bills are pending in a handful of states whose legislatures are still in session.

In Arkansas, legislators banned mask mandates 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 typically have no public health expertise, can veto countywide public health orders. In Kansas and Tennessee, school boards, rather than health officials, have the power to close schools.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called a special legislative session in early August 2021, asking lawmakers to carve out an exception for schools in a bill to ban mask mandates.
AP Photo/Andrew Demillo

President Joe Biden last week announced sweeping vaccination mandates and other COVID-19 measures, saying he was forced to act partly because of such legislation. “My plan also takes on elected officials in states that are undermining you and these lifesaving actions,” he said.

The KHN review showed that:

  • In at least 16 states, legislators have limited the power of public health officials to order mask mandates, or 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 or passports or made it easier to get around vaccine requirements.
  • At least nine states have new laws banning or limiting mask mandates. Executive orders or a court ruling limit mask requirements in five more.
students with signs ride in the back of a pickup truck around Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District's face mask requirement in Kalispell, Mont.
Students with signs ride in the back of a pickup truck around Flathead High School to protest the Kalispell School District’s face mask requirement in Kalispell, Mont.
Hunter D’Antuono/Flathead Beacon via AP, File

Much of this 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.

“We really could see more people sick, hurt, hospitalized or even die, depending on the extremity of the legislation and curtailing of the authority,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, head of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Public health academics and officials are frustrated that they, instead of the virus, have become the enemy. They argue this will have consequences that last long beyond this pandemic, diminishing their ability to fight the latest COVID-19 surge and future disease outbreaks, such as being able to quarantine people during a measles outbreak.

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

people celebrate after the Salt Lake County Council voted to overturn a school mask order for kids under the age of 12
People celebrate after the Salt Lake County Council voted to overturn a school mask order for kids under the age of 12.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

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

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

After initially signing the bill, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., expressed regret, calling a special legislative session in early August to ask lawmakers to carve out an exception for schools. Lawmakers declined. The law is currently blocked by an Arkansas judge who deemed it unconstitutional. Legal battles are ongoing in other states as well.

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