Shelby County officials: COVID-19 bills passed by Tennessee legislature are 'harmful to public health'

Katherine Burgess
Memphis Commercial Appeal
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Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Michelle Taylor speaks to the press during a press conference dealing with pediatric cases of COVID-19 at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital on Friday, Aug 13, 2021.

Shelby County officials expressed concern at the slate of measures passed early Saturday morning by Tennessee lawmakers, saying measures weren’t based on science and would curtail Shelby County’s ability to combat the spread of COVID-19.

"The decision that was made in Nashville last week is extremely harmful to public health, not only here in Shelby County but across the state," said Dr. Michelle Taylor, director of the Shelby County Health Department. "I tell you that if the governor signs this law, every decision we make in a pandemic will have to go through Nashville. We will have to run all decisions based upon local lives, life and death situations, through Nashville. If we have another impending collapse of our health system, we will have to call Nashville first."

The sweeping bill bars government entities and public schools from requiring masks unless COVID-19 cases skyrocket (at least 1,000 cases for every 100,000 residents in the past 14 days). It also prohibits those entities, as well as many private businesses, from mandating COVID-19 vaccines or proof of vaccination.

It allows the state health commissioner exclusive power to design quarantine guidelines, bans the use of public funds for COVID-19 mandates and requires hospitals to allow visitation by at least one family member of a COVID-19 patient as long as the family member tests negative for the disease and remains asymptomatic and more.

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner said the legislation was written targeting autonomous health departments, like Shelby County’s. Perhaps litigation against the bills could be added onto current lawsuits against the governor’s executive order opposing mask mandates in schools, Turner said.

"When we do try to protect ourselves, they strip away our ability to do so," Turner said.

Another bill passed Saturday morning would give the governor exclusive power to issue executive orders and direct health departments during a pandemic. It will also transform the way local health directors in the state's six biggest counties are selected. 

Having the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health involved in choosing the director of county health departments is "not necessarily a bad thing," Taylor said, "as long as consideration is made about the person’s knowledge of local trends and analyzing data and using a data-driven approach and making sure that they’re familiar with the population."

"But if all of those things get lost in politics then there may be an issue going forward on how best to protect the health of residents of Shelby County, and that’s the concern," she said.

Taylor said that in her three months as director of the health department, she has relied on data to construct mitigation strategies such as masking, and the currently low case rates show the success of doing so.

"Although we have lower vaccination rates than really all of the other urban counties in the state, we continue to have lower case rates and that’s a direct result of mitigation efforts that we put into place as an independent health department that frankly if we were underneath this new law that’s been proposed we would not be able to do," Taylor said. "Really, the public health department even though in this political landscape has been politicized, the independence of the health department ensures that lives can be saved."

Commissioner Willie F. Brooks, Jr. speaks Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, during a Shelby County Commission meeting at the Vasco A. Smith, Jr. County Administration Building in downtown Memphis.

Shelby County Commission Chairman Willie Brooks Jr. said he is concerned about the high threshold for mask mandates.

"I support wearing masks for safety of other people," Brooks said. "You walk into an environment and don’t know who has been exposed to COVID or not. Even though the numbers have gone down, it’s attributed to people wearing masks, not so much the COVID virus has gone away, because it’s not going away. It’s here to stay."

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, center, takes part in World Relief welcoming Afghan refugees to Memphis on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021.

The county is still reviewing the bills to make sure it understands all the legal ramifications, said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

Some of it, he said, looks like it may not be legal, such as the portion that bans private businesses from requiring vaccines to enter.

"That part feels like it’s not on solid legal footing to me, because what it does is it more or less forces a private business to spread the virus, spread outbreaks and spread death, and you can’t force a private business to spread an outbreak and death," Harris said. "These are private businesses and if they want to have a safe environment in their business then that decision has to be left up to those private business owners."

Other pieces that feel flawed to Harris are the 1,000-case threshold for masks, which he said "doesn’t seem to be based on the science."

The CDC said Americans should resume wearing masks in areas where there are more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days, much lower than the Tennessee legislature’s 1,000 case threshold.

"Another piece is that you can have layers of protection in private schools but you can’t have layers of protection in public schools, well that’s not going to help us stop the spread of COVID-19," Harris said. "I’m a little uneasy about that distinction, because COVID-19 doesn’t make that distinction. It makes no distinctions between private and public schools."

At the same time, there is some "good news" in the bill, Harris said, including a provision that allows hospital visits to take place.

Regarding the health director being appointed by the Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner, Harris said that’s not too much of a change from how things are done today.

"It always takes the endorsement and support of the state health department," he said.

Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, co-chair of the infection control program at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, said the high threshold for mask mandates means running the risk of not being able to quickly respond to changes in the pandemic.

He also pointed out that the pandemic can differ drastically across different parts of Tennessee, meaning there is a need for local control.

“In general, physicians like public health to be decided as locally as possible, provided that there are people with adequate training and expertise necessary to make good decisions," Threlkeld said.

"I think we have that in Shelby County, so I think most physicians prefer the ability to be more nimble in those decisions. I think in terms of mandates, which obviously was a significant focus of some of that legislation, making mandates laying out where you can’t have mandates is a tricky tightrope to walk in terms of the logic of the thing.”

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at [email protected], 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

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