Monday, January 11, 2021

Op-ed: Resolution Recklessly Injects Politics into Local COVID Response

Posted By on Mon, Jan 11, 2021 at 9:10 AM

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Make no mistake, the resolution being brought before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors tomorrow by First District Supervisor Rex Bohn does nothing but further politicize Humboldt County’s COVID-19 response, undermining our local health officer and exerting undue pressure on local school districts in the process.

Bohn has asked the board to consider approving the “Healthy Communities Resolution,” which arose last year out of a meeting of conservative “North state leaders” and has since been adopted by a handful of counties from Lassen to Orange. The resolution amounts to little more than a statement of opposition to the state’s tiered county-by-county approach to COVID-19 restrictions, while also urging school districts “to safely open all schools as soon as possible … without further delay.”

Not only is the resolution legally toothless — the power to issue and implement health orders rests with the state of California and the local health officer, and no county resolution is going to change that — but it’s also dangerous, hypocritical and inherently political. It also comes in the midst of an unprecedented local case surge and appears in direct conflict with Health Officer Ian Hoffman’s approach to limiting COVID-19’s spread in Humboldt County.


Thursday, just about 24 hours before the county posted Bohn’s agenda item for public review and as the county was setting another single-week record for new COVID-19 cases (270), a reporter asked Hoffman about the prospect of deviating from the state’s tiered approach to local restrictions and his answer was unequivocal.

“I don’t believe that we should be doing anything differently than the state’s orders,” Hoffman said.

Moments later, a reporter pointed out that while Humboldt remains in the state’s red “substantial” risk tier, local data indicates it should be in the state’s most restrictive purple tier and asked whether Hoffman would use his authority to implement more restrictive measures. Hoffman said he wouldn’t deviate from the state’s framework and stressed the importance of local leaders delivering a “strong, unified” message that the county’s numbers “look purple” and asking residents to follow the guidelines.

Mere hours later, Bohn’s proposed resolution posted, positing that Humboldt and its residents are ill-suited for the state’s “one-size-fits-all” approach and should be allowed to tailor its response to “geographically separate areas, such as different zip codes.” Ignoring for a moment the inherent ridiculousness of trying to control a virus that’s rapidly spreading throughout the county with a hodge-podge of restrictions varying by zip code — and the fact that a new state order now mandates that all counties are essentially sharing hospital capacity, meaning we are very much all in this together — let’s consider the timing of Bohn’s proposed resolution.

His counterparts in other parts of the state brought this forward nearly two months ago, so why’d Bohn wait until now? It’s certainly not because our local case numbers have improved. It’s quite the opposite. Humboldt County had confirmed about 700 cases as of mid-November with a test-positivity rate of about 3.5 percent. In the two months since, it has confirmed more than 1,300 new cases with a test-positivity rate that’s doubled and remains on the rise. No, what’s changed is the politics of the moment.

Back in November, Teresa Frankovich was still serving as Humboldt County’s health officer, guiding the county’s COVID-19 response with a strong and trusted voice, and Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell was chairing the board of supervisors, regularly espousing the importance of trusting science and medical professionals when making public health decisions. Now, Humboldt has Hoffman, a new health officer still trying to find his footing in the position and working for a board that just chose him from a field of 18 candidates, and newly sworn in Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who has appeared far more skeptical of COVID-19 restrictions than her predecessor. The newfound absence of two voices likely to have met Bohn’s proposed resolution with strong opposition changes the political calculus of whether to bring it forward.

But what’s the trouble in politicizing a pandemic response and why shouldn’t elected politicians be allowed to weigh in? Fair questions.

To look at the potential problems with politicizing Humboldt County’s COVID-19 response, let’s talk school districts and the proposed resolution’s urging schools to “safely” reopen “without further delay.” First and foremost, every school district in Humboldt County has the power to open in-class instruction tomorrow, if its school board chose to do so. The notion that some state order has prohibited local schools from re-opening is simply not true. And anyone who thinks local superintendents and school board members don’t feel intense pressure to get kids back into classrooms simply hasn’t been watching school board meetings. Everyone wants kids back in school. The problem is that democratically elected school board members in most of Humboldt County’s 30 districts have decided it's not yet safe to do so.

It’s not lost on us that there’s a special brand of hypocrisy inherent in the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ considering a resolution ostensibly in the name of local control while also pressuring the local officials below them to bend to their will.

But this is more than a philosophical problem.

As we’ve seen, a community’s success in limiting COVID-19’s spread is a matter of collective will — the extent to which each of its members is willing to follow the guidance dictated by science and health officials and sacrifice for the communal good. Having the county’s preeminent governing body passing a resolution in open defiance of that guidance — while legally toothless — would undoubtedly have cascading impacts.

It would give the COVID hoaxers one more thing to point to when defiantly entering a public space without a mask. It would make that business owner operating outside the guidelines feel justified in disregarding that state health order. And, perhaps most troubling, it could cause our local health officer — hired by this very board just weeks ago — to consider the political ramifications of any decision he is considering while similarly causing school board members — many of whom have aspirations to higher office — to consider more than just the education of students and the health and safety of everyone who steps on campus when deciding how to navigate the coming months of COVID-19.

Asked about the proposed resolution by the Lost Coast Outpost, Bohn said: “It’s just an idea to give us a little bit more mobility for our health officer, and to let folks know down south that we are a bit different.”

The problem is this resolution really will not give our local health officer any more mobility — it just risks mobilizing politics into his and local school boards’ decisions. And as to the notion that we’re different, well, that remains to be seen.

Los Angeles County is current losing a resident every eight minutes to COVID-19, according to news reports, as hospitals overflow and ambulance companies have instructed employees to only bring those who can be saved to the hospital and to leave others to die at home. Humboldt County isn’t there. Not yet, anyway. But hospital employees raised the alarm last month in interviews with the Journal, saying they’re seeing more critically ill patients than ever before. Our COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing and our caseload is spiking with the full impact of holiday travel and gatherings not yet felt, indicating the very worst is yet to come.

So is now the time to inject politics into our public health decisions? Do we want the physician with a masters degree in public health looking over his shoulder to a board of politicians before deciding what’s in the community’s best interest? Do we want school board members who know their districts best contemplating the political ramifications of re-opening or just deciding what’s best for kids and staff?

We think the answers to these questions are glaringly clear and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors needs to stay in its lane, leaving health orders and guidelines to the public health professionals who have made them their lives’ work.
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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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