Dallas County Board of Health chooses freedom over safety

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Libertarian zeal on the Dallas County Board of Health prevented the board's issuing a mandatory mask order at its Tuesday night meeting, and the board settled instead for a "statement" that "strongly recommends" the wearing of an "appropriate facial covering."

Libertarian zeal on the Dallas County Board of Health prevented the board’s issuing a mandatory mask order at its Tuesday night meeting, and the board settled instead for a “statement” that “strongly recommends” the wearing of an “appropriate facial covering.”

The board’s statement essentially repeated its previous guidance and did not go as far as the guidance issued Nov. 16 by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, leading one member of the public who attended the meeting to describe it as “a pathetically wasted opportunity to effect a positive change.”

The meeting of the county health board was chaired by Kim Chapman of Adel, with Vice Chair Monty N. Button of Earlham and members Dr. Josh Kindt of Clive, Samantha Uhlenhake of West Des Moines and Lina Tucker Reinders of Clive rounding out the board. Kindt is the board’s medical director.

Chapman, who also chairs the Dallas County Board of Supervisors, recused himself from both the discussion and vote on the matter of the mask.

“The reason for that,” Chapman said, “is if there is a motion, a second and approval of the motion to require a mandate to wear a mask, then that action will come before the Dallas County Board of Supervisors for their consideration. As I serve as a Dallas County Supervisor, I will retain that right to discuss and take action at that level rather than at the level of the board of health.”

Dallas County Attorney Charles Sinnard agreed that a mandatory mask order issuing from the board of health “would require board of supervisor approval” before it could take effect. but something less robust, such as a statement, would not require supervisor approval because it would be legally powerless.

“A statement is merely that, a statement,” Sinnard said, “with no infringement of rights or potential penalties to citizens. Because of that, it is not a rule or regulation, so it could be approved by the board of health without need for supervisor approval.”

The meeting opened with a series of public comments by people who urged the health board to take forceful action to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Dallas County, which is currently infecting county residents at a rolling-14-day rate of nearly 20%. Among the people addressing the board were Waukee Community School District Superintendent Dr. Bradley Buck, Urbandale Mayor Bob Andeweg and city council members from Urbandale, Clive and West Des Moines.

“Anything that can be done to increase the level of mitigation done in our county is incredibly important to us,” Buck told the board.

Andeweg was more specific in his recommendations, encouraging the board to pass a resolution requiring county residents to “wear a mask at all times in public places regardless of time spent in an establishment or social distancing availability.”

Andeweg said the Urbandale City Council will approve such a resolution at its next meeting.

“We must highly encourage our residents to do what is right to effectively battle this scourge of COVID-19 cases,” he said.

“It doesn’t take 15 minutes to contract COVID,” said West Des Moines City Council member Renee Hardman. “It takes seconds. And so I am a proponent of everything that we can do to curb this spread of the COVID.”

Dr. Rebecca Lachenmaier of Urbandale, a doctor of internal medicine, said that “a countywide mask mandate would be extremely helpful. I will tell you, our hospitals are as full as I’ve ever seen them. We cannot keep this up. We cannot keep the amount of patients we have safe and have enough people to take care of them safely.”

Following the public comments, the board members discussed revising the current guidance to include a mandatory mask rule, among other mitigation strategies.

Tucker Reinders, the health board’s newest member, holds a master’s degree in public health and is the executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association. She urged the board to mandate the wearing of face masks in public at all times and to omit the governor’s 6-foot, 15-minute stipulations from the county’s guidance.

“The fact that the governor, who has been resistant to any sort of mask mandate, last week went there and issued even a partial mask mandate should tell us how serious this is,” Tucker Reinders said. “What I would like to see, my personal preference, is that we have a countywide mask mandate. I know that’s not the preference of everybody on the board and that it’s up for discussion.”

Tucker Reinders said the infection rate in Dallas County could be controlled “by pushing and recommending the mitigation measures that the governor is recommending and then even going a step farther.” Like Dr. Lachenmaier, she emphasized the risk of running out of hospital beds and the possible denial of care that could occur if the community spread is not slowed.

“We are treading on the cliff edge of a health care system overwhelmed,” Tucker Reinders said, “and not just in response to COVID but in response to any health emergency someone might have.”

According to Dallas County Public Health Department data, there were 64 positive cases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in Perry as of Nov. 24, 86 cases in Adel and 300 in Waukee. Authorities at the Dallas County Hospital did not reply to inquiries about the hospital’s current state of occupancy, but Dallas County EMS Director Mike Thomason of Perry said his ambulances transported 10 COVID patients in September, 24 in October and 32 so far in November.

“We have now started to see cases of COVID in our staff, with four members testing positive,” Thomason said. “We are not allowing them to work, and we test all employees who have any symptoms for COVID to protect the patients.”

In spite of the recommendations from experts in the field, Tucker Reinders’ proposal for a countywide mask order was vigorously opposed by Button, a hewer of wood from rural Earlham, who brought his homespun libertarianism to bear on the question.

“The mask thing is questionable” Button said. “It really is. To make this a mandatory thing, I can’t support that.” He said he doubted the effectiveness of masks and said each county resident would do better to “concentrate on building up one’s own immunity” through diet and exercise.

Button reserved the bulk of his rhetorical ammunition for a ringing defense of Iowans’ prized liberties against the proposed public health mandate.

“I’m going to mention this from a constitutional standpoint,” Button said. “The Constitution puts limitations on the federal government, and therefore the Bill of Rights was thought totally unnecessary at the very start of the country. It was several years later that the founder who wrote this insisted on this occurring and for a very good reason. They had a lot of foresight, well beyond what I think our capability really is today. I think they were very, very deep thinkers. They’d already went through a lot of this. And so they put those in there as another safeguard to protect our freedoms and our liberties. I know a fellow one time, and he made this comment, and it’s very fitting to this. I’ll just summarize this in a way: The country’s uniqueness is based on individual freedom. We are free to choose where we live and travel. We are free to choose our careers and invent, create. And what allowed this country to excel and to have a standard of living that is envied around the world was not what government did for us but rather what government was prevented from doing. The government’s main job is to protect and safeguard our liberties and our freedoms so that many veterans that paid for this don’t get a slap in the face. Even our own state motto on our state flag says, ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.’ And there’s an old saying, too, that is very fitting as well. ‘Those that are willing to give up freedom in exchange for safety will soon have neither.’ So from that standpoint, I can’t support this mandate at all. I would much rather see us make a statement about improving our own health.”

Button also noted that cigarette smoking “kills far more than the China virus has ever done. Where’s the outrage? And why are abortion clinics still allowed to remain open if we’re concerned about life?”

Button’s rhetorical questions were met with silence. Dallas County Pubic Health Department Director Suzanne Hegarty had a draft of a “strongly recommends” statement at hand for the board’s consideration and after accepting several cosmetic changes suggested by Dr. Kindt, the board unanimously approved the statement.

Some members of the public in attendance were disappointed by the board’s statement.

“I’m horrified that this board is disregarding our own physician citizen who has taken time to attend and address the board in this meeting,” said one attendee. “This is not a complicated decision to make. If you can’t take a stand now to protect our community and keep our citizens safe, it will be remembered at future elections.”

Dr. Lachenmaier also sounded disappointed by the outcome of the meeting. “We as a community need to do our jobs,” she said. “It is not about rights. It is not about liberties. It is about being unselfish and caring for our neighbors.”

The next meeting of the Dallas County Board of Health will be Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. at 902 Court St. in Adel.

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