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Douglas County health board opposes plan to strip health director of powers during epidemic

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More Nebraskans are returning to such activities as concerts, movies and sporting events as the state's COVID case counts continue their downward trend.

The Douglas County Board of Health on Wednesday voted to formally oppose a proposal before the Omaha City Council that would strip decision-making powers from the city health director in the event of an epidemic.

Under the proposed ordinance, the city health director would have the power only to certify the presence of an epidemic. After a threat is recognized, a newly established special epidemic health director would be responsible for coming up with a plan to manage it.

The county health director, according to the resolution, has the public health knowledge, expertise and experience to make and carry out actions in an epidemic. Neither a special epidemic health director, the mayor nor the City Council is chosen or elected based on their public health expertise, the resolution states.

“The proposed ordinance would negatively impact the health and well-being of the public during such times of duress as an epidemic or pandemic, when swift and non-political decision-making is necessary to protect the lives of Omaha’s citizens,” the resolution reads.

“Multiple non-elected officials make decisions impacting these citizens on a daily basis, without interference. To now interfere in the City Health Director role’s codified, delegated authority can only be construed as being politically influenced, rather than being driven by the long-term public health needs of the community.”

The proposed city ordinance states that the special epidemic director would assume the powers previously held by the city’s health director during an epidemic. However, any order from the new epidemic director could be rejected by the mayor. The City Council also would have the ability to weigh in on the order.

Under the ordinance, the newly created special epidemic health director position would be filled by the physician medical director for the Omaha Fire Department.

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who requested the ordinance along with Councilman Vinny Palermo, told The World-Herald that the measure is intended to provide accountability during future epidemics.

Nearly two months ago, Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse issued a mask mandate for Omaha amid a surge of COVID-19 infections. Huse issued the mandate under her authority as the city’s health director. She cited an “astronomical spike in cases” and an already overburdened health care system as her justification for the mandate.

More than a half-dozen local infectious diseases experts spoke Wednesday in support of the health board’s resolution and in support of keeping epidemic authority in the hands of the county health director. All spoke on their own behalf rather than on behalf of their institutions. But all have been involved in caring for COVID-19 patients or providing advice on the pandemic response.

Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, chief of infectious disease at CHI Health and Creighton University, said the pandemic has shown the importance of having a public health expert leading the response.

“It’s really important for them to do that job,” she said, noting that COVID is not over, and parts of Asia and Europe are seeing a new surge. “We’ve just got to keep doing the right thing in a coming surge,” she said.

Dr. Maureen Tierney, assistant dean for public health and clinical research at Creighton’s School of Medicine, said the ability to manage an epidemic or pandemic comes from years of training in public health and epidemiology, training the fire department’s medical director would not necessarily have.

The health director deals with a variety of epidemics, not just COVID-19, including annual influenza, norovirus and sexually transmitted diseases.

“If you don’t act quickly when you have a new epidemic, the number of additional people who can be affected can go up markedly,” said Tierney, who also represented the Nebraska Infectious Diseases Society.

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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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