Petition drive seeks to limit public health authority during epidemics

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Public health officials and other experts say that a new ballot petition would limit the ability of state and local health officers to take action during future infectious disease outbreaks to save lives.

The proposal by Unlock Michigan II, a group critical of the lockdowns imposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, would place a 28-day limit on statewide emergency epidemic orders and orders by local health officials.

Extensions would need approval by elected bodies.

Emergency orders by either the state director of Health and Human Services or local health officials would require written determinations explaining the need for the order. 

That would help put public oversight in the hands of elected officials, advocates say.

Under the proposal, both houses of the Legislature would have to approve an extension of state orders. Extensions of local emergency orders would need the approval of the governing entity of the local health department. 

But putting that power into the hands of elected officials could harm public health, opponents argue.

“This would hurt the general public, as it would limit measures intended to prevent the spread of diseases or viruses,” said James Haveman, the former director of the health and mental health departments under Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder. 

The Unlock Michigan II petition seeks a statewide vote on the proposal. Organizers need to file petitions signed by at least 340,000 voters to get the issue on the November ballot.

“Public health ‘experts’ can’t be trusted to make these decisions completely on their own” because they’ve already neglected to balance other prominent issues, said Unlock Michigan II supporter Fred Wszolek.

If public health experts are right about needing an emergency order, “then the elected officials would extend the emergency order for as long as it’s appropriate,” he said.

Another concern is that limiting emergency orders to 28 days may create a time constraint that is not manageable because public health officials “would have to spend a considerable amount of time on work that is not public health related,” said Emmanuel Jadhav, an associate professor in the Public Health Program at Ferris State University. 

If an extension were necessary to protect public health, officials and experts would have to begin the process of securing approval early into their initial order, he said. 

“I appreciate the checks and balances that do not give full power to experts, but we should allow the expert to tell us what they can work with,”Jadhav said. 

Although the motivation behind the petition drive arises from the COVID-19 pandemic, critics of the proposal say the impact would apply to other health crises.

Haveman said it “makes no practical sense” to let county commissioners or state legislators take away health officials’ emergency powers.

“I have a lot of respect for public health experts, and I think they should be allowed to do their jobs. Michigan has over 100 years of public health expertise with highly qualified people at state and county levels,” said Haveman, the president of a consulting group.

Haveman said many opponents of masking orders argue that such mandates strip citizens of their freedom. 

“I would argue the opposite,” said Haveman, who opposes the Unlock Michigan II proposal. “Keeping the public health authority within the public health experts is really defending Michiganders from illness, infection, disease or viruses.”

Haveman advocates against the proposal and urges voters not to sign this petition. 

“I’m all for public health over politicians – leave the public health experts to make those decisions. They have a history of doing the right thing, so just let them continue,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for politicians, but they are not public health experts.”

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