Wisconsin’s local and tribal public health departments work around the clock to fight the pandemic. As the virus’s challenges evolve, so does the response from local health officers.
Our common goals are to keep Wisconsinites safe, stop the virus from overloading our hospitals and prevent shutting down our communities. To do this, local health officers need all the tools at their disposal: testing, contact tracing, communicating best practices, and collaborating with local officials and community partners to protect and support public health.
Throughout December, Gov. Tony Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu held meetings to discuss new legislative efforts to address the pandemic. Local health officers were encouraged by these meetings and hoped meaningful solutions are put forward.
However, Assembly and Senate Republicans on Monday put forth a proposal to limit local health officers from issuing a closure or capacity limitation order for businesses without authorization from a municipal or county board.
This substantial change to current law does not enable public health professionals to utilize their science-based education and experience to address public health risks in a timely and strategic manner. Rather, it politicizes a community’s response to the pandemic and jeopardizes public health and safety.
Much of the work conducted by local health officers is not unique to the pandemic. While a number of tools are available in a local health officer’s toolbox, most are rarely needed. Our local health departments occasionally have to take similar measures during non-pandemic times.
For example, prior to the start of the 2017 U.S. Open held at Erin Hills Golf Course, E. coli was detected in a hydration station for spectators. The Washington-Ozaukee County Health Department identified the problem, shut down the contaminated hydration station and quickly identified a safe alternative for clean water. Local health officers protected the public and averted a dangerous outbreak.
The difference now is the duration of the response, the growing number of cases and the limited availability of necessary resources. Just as our hospitals are facing critical shortages of staff, supplies and equipment, so too are our health departments. Wisconsin policymakers anticipated this type of unprecedented public health emergency and created a statute, Chapter 252.03, to guide the public health response that obligates local health officers to do “what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease.”
This law has existed in statute for nearly 40 years and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. This law was not created by Democrats or Republicans but by Wisconsin policymakers who believed in local control and the authority of local officers to combat pandemics.
In recent months, the public opinion in one county rejected what Assembly and Senate Republicans have proposed. Brown County asked voters in an advisory referendum in November whether state law should be amended to require county board approval of orders from local health officers. Confirming support for current local health officer authority, 55% of voters said no.
Simply stated, Chapter 252.03 is a necessary and helpful tool, not a hindrance, in protecting public health. Local health officers follow science to protect health and safety. They rely on their education, training and all available data to make objective, evidence-based decisions. Additionally, they are accountable to their local boards of health, the elected officials who appointed them and their communities.
Local control and decision-making are keys to governance in Wisconsin. If the response to this unprecedented pandemic is to be left to local officials—which is what state elected officials have repeatedly emphasized—then local officials, including local health officers, need to continue to have access to every tool in their toolbox. The middle of a pandemic is no time to limit the effectiveness of local health officers.