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As Delta Variant Spreads, Limited Public Health Laws In Western States Could Pose Safety Risks

Robyn Vincent

Cases of the COVID delta variant are surging nationwide, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week to issue new guidance for vaccinated people to mask up in areas with high transmission rates. But if infections continue to rise, some Western states have limited how officials can respond.

Idaho, Montana and Utah recently passed laws softening local or executive authority during a public health crisis.

In Idaho, for example, county commissioners now have the power to overturn orders issued by district health departments. Gov. Brad Little also signed legislation in May diluting his emergency powers.

Meanwhile, a law enacted in Utah in March grants the state legislature the power to terminate orders issued by local health departments.

Perhaps the sharpest example comes from Montana, where Gov. Greg Gianforte signed two bills limiting the authority of local boards of health. The boards are prohibited from enacting key measures during a public health emergency such as quarantine orders and mask mandates.

Montana state Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, who sponsored one of those bills, told the Associated Press in June that health departments “were commandeering private resources'' by asking businesses to enforce mask mandates.

Those establishments were shouldering a disproportionate amount of responsibility when it came to enforcing such measures, he said. “The feedback I got from businesses was basically that they’re being threatened, the health board is going to try to pull your business license or your liquor license or try to sue you.”

Colorado is often a continent away from Montana’s politics. But Gov. Jared Polis said in June he was ready to dial back the executive powers he exercised at the height of the pandemic. Republican state leaders have been exerting pressure on the Democratic governor amid the many executive orders Polis signed over the last year.

Jill Krueger, northern regional director for the Network for Public Health Law, says policies that limit executive powers during a public health crisis pose major threats to community members. Her organization has been working with the National Association of City and County Health Officials to study the wave of legislation limiting public health authority across the nation.

“In an emergency, the executive branch, historically and traditionally and for good reason, is charged with responding to emergencies because it can act quickly and has the subject matter expertise,” she said.

Krueger says laws that limit the authority of local health departments have a similar impact. Those policies also disproportionately hurt people of color, who have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Public health agencies are the ones who are intimately working with, reporting, collecting the data about health circumstances and have a lens to look at disparities in terms of race, ethnicity, age, religion, disability,” Krueger said.

That, among other reasons, is why it makes sense to have those entities and officials on the front lines addressing public health emergencies, she said. “They can make evidence-based responses based on that data to target interventions in the communities that are suffering the worst impact.”

The rise in COVID-19 cases comes amid persistently low vaccination rates in some Western states. According to the Mayo Clinic vaccine tracker, in Wyoming, 36 percent of residents have gotten both shots; Idaho is just one percentage point ahead of that. The national average is roughly 50 percent.

New Mexico leads the region with 56 percent of residents fully vaccinated followed by Colorado with 54 percent.

Copyright 2021 KUNC

Robyn Vincent