Kaiser Health News reviewed hundreds of pieces legislation and found that all 50 states have had legislators propose bills to limit such public health powers. This was since the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some governors vetoed certain bills, 26 states passed laws that permanently limit the government's authority to protect public safety and health. Three additional states had their long-held public safety powers limited by an executive order, a ballot initiative, or a state Supreme Court ruling. A handful of states still have their legislatures in session, so there are more bills pending.
Arkansas legislators prohibited mask mandates in private business or state-run healthcare settings. They called them "a burden upon the public peace and health of the citizens of this State." Idaho county commissioners can veto countywide health orders. Schools can be closed in Kansas and Tennessee by school boards rather than health officials in Tennessee and Kansas.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced broad vaccination mandates and other COVID-19 actions. He said he was forced partly to do so because of such legislation. He stated, "My plan also includes taking on elected officials from states that are undermining your lifesaving actions and you."
KHN reviewed the following:
At least 16 states have legislatures that limit the authority of public health officials to issue mask mandates or quarantines, or isolate. They gave the power to stop the spread of infectious diseases in some cases either by giving it to themselves or local elected officials.
At least 17 states have passed laws that ban COVID-19 vaccination mandates and passports, or make it easier to avoid vaccine requirements.
At least nine states have passed new laws that prohibit or limit mask mandates. An executive order or a court decision can limit the requirements for masks in five additional states.
Many of these laws are in effect because COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising in certain areas, which is the highest at any time during the pandemic. Children are also back in school.
Lori Tremmel Freeman is the head of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. She stated that "we could see more people sickened, hurt, hospitalized, or even die" depending on how extreme the legislation and curtailing of authority are.
Officials and academics in public health are annoyed that they have become the enemy, rather than the virus. This will have long-lasting consequences, including a decrease in their ability to combat the recent COVID-19 surge, and future outbreaks of disease, such as being capable to quarantine measles victims during an outbreak.
Kelley Vollmar, executive Director of the Jefferson County Health Department in Missouri, said that it's "kind of like having your hands tied during a boxing match."
The new limits are supported by proponents who say they provide a check on executive power and allow lawmakers to speak up in long-term emergencies. Arkansas state senator Trent Garner, a Republican, co-sponsored the state's bill to ban mask mandates. He said that he wanted to reflect the will and opinions of the people.
Garner stated, "What the people in Arkansas want is for the decision to be left to them and their families." "It's high time to remove the power from so-called experts whose ideas are woefully inadequate."
Governor. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) expressed regret and called a special legislative session early August to request that lawmakers create an exception for schools. Lawmakers declined. Arkansas Judge has blocked the law from being implemented. He deemed it unconstitutional. Other states are also facing legal challenges.
A DELUGE OF ALL BILLS
Ohio legislators were given the power to repeal health orders and weaken school vaccine mandates. Schools in Utah and Iowa cannot require the use of masks. Alabama's state and local governments can not issue vaccination passports, and schools cannot require COVID-19 vaccines.
Montana's Legislature passed some of most restrictive laws. They severely curtailed public health's quarantine powers and isolation powers. They also increased the power of local elected officials over local health boards. They prevented restrictions on religious gatherings and banned employers from requiring vaccinations for COVID-19 or any other disease.
There were also limits placed on local officials by the legislature: If jurisdictions create public health rules that are stronger than state public-health measures, they may lose 20% of grants.
Karen Sullivan, Montana's Butte-Silver Bow Health Department's health officer, is now terrified about the future. She lost the ability to order quarantines and has been left with anxiety over what the future holds, not just during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for future measles outbreaks.
Sullivan stated that "In the midstof delta and other variants out there, it's quite frankly a nervous wreck about,". "Relying solely on morality or goodwill is not a good practice for public health."
Although some public health officials attempted to stop the national wave in legislation, the underfunded workforce of public health workers was too busy trying to implement the largest ever vaccination campaign in U.S history. They had very little time to take action on political issues.
Freeman stated that her county and city health officials group is lacking in influence and resources. This is especially true when compared to the American Legislative Exchange Council (a conservative, corporate-backed group) which promoted a model bill restricting the emergency powers of governors. According to KHN, the draft legislation seems to have inspired many state-level bills. At least 15 states have passed laws that limit emergency powers. Some states have laws that limit emergency powers. Governors cannot make mask mandates or close down businesses. Legislators can overturn executive orders.
A long list of bills was introduced to limit public health powers in North Dakota when the legislative session began in January. One bill had language that was similar to ALEC's. Because three of the state's health directors had resigned in 2020, there wasn't a way for them to challenge the new limits.
Renae Moch from Bismarck's public health department said that fighting the bills was not only time-consuming but also dangerous. She testified against a measure banning mask mandates. Then she was bombarded with hate mail and demanded her firing.
The bill was passed by the legislature after the governor's veto was overruled by lawmakers. North Dakota's legislature also prohibited businesses from asking if patrons were vaccinated or infected by the coronavirus. It also curbed the governor’s emergency powers.
Jonathon Hauenschild (director of the ALEC taskforce on communications and technology) stated that the new laws were designed to decrease the power of governors as well as restore balance between the executive branches of states and the legislatures. Hauenschild stated that although elected governors have been delegating large amounts of authority to public health officials, which was often someone they had appointed.
"LIKE TURNING A LIGHT SWITCH OFF"
It was devastating for Dr. David Welsh (public health officer in rural Ripley), when the Indiana Legislature overrode Governor's veto and passed a bill giving county commissioners power to review public orders.
Because they were aware that the county commissioners could overturn their authority, people stopped calling Welsh to report COVID-19 violations. Welsh described it as "like flipping off a light switch."
Welsh stated that another county in Indiana had already seen the mask mandate of its health department overruled by local commissioners.
After more than 25 years in the position, he is considering quitting. According to ongoing analysis by KHN, The Associated Press, he will join the at least 303 public-health leaders who have resigned, resigned, or been fired since the outbreak of the pandemic. This means that 1 in 5 Americans lost a local leader of health during the pandemic.
Brian Castrucci, CEO at the de Beaumont Foundation which promotes public health, said, "This is a fatal blow." The legislative assault was the final straw for many experienced public health officials who had fought the pandemic with insufficient resources. He also called it vilification.
Public health groups anticipate more combative legislation. Hauenschild of ALEC said that the group is investigating a Michigan law which allowed the legislature to limit emergency powers for the governor without a Democratic governor. Gretchen Whitmer signed.
Campaign fodder has included limiting the authority of public officials in health, especially among Republican candidates further to the right. Republican Idaho Governor. Brad Little was on a trip out of state and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, Lt. Gov. of Brad Little was out of state and signed an unexpected executive order prohibiting mask mandates. She later promoted it for her upcoming campaign against him. He reversed the ban and tweeted: "I don't like petty politics." I don't like political stunts that are not in line with the rule of law.
Former Oregon Democratic state senator Wayne Fawbush, a former lawmaker, said that some politicians today may regret the laws.
Fawbush was a supporter of legislation passed in 1989 during the AIDS crisis. Employers were prohibited from requiring that health care workers get the HIV vaccine as a condition for employment.
However, this means that Oregon can no longer require health care workers in Oregon to be vaccinated for COVID-19 32 years later. Fawbush called lawmaking "a messy business" and said that he would not have pushed for the bill had he known what he knows now.
Fawbush stated that legislators must deal with immediate issues. "But we must look beyond the immediate. It is part of job responsibility to see the consequences.