On Monday, Knox County Commission voted to create an advisory committee to second-guess the medical professionals on the Knox County Board of Health who are tasked with making decisions about the official response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier in the evening, a man seated in the balcony reserved for protestors was thrown out of the City County Building after he screamed, “The pandemic does not exist!” The protestors, who have become regulars at county meetings, are isolated in the balcony with their own sound system because they refuse to wear facemasks. Commission is creating the new committee in response to their demands to dissolve the health board.
In its Wednesday update, the Knox County Health Department reported more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 for the fifth straight day. In addition to Wednesday’s 105 new reported cases, Knox County’s total active cases stands at 1,472, with 69 current hospitalizations and two new deaths, bringing the total number of Knox County deaths to 103.
The vote was 8-2-1 to create the advisory board, which commission chair Larsen Jay denounced as the first step toward dissolving the board of health. He and Courtney Durrett voted no. Terry Hill abstained.
This “shadow” advisory board will not have the power to make legally-binding decisions, but is being created by ordinance, which means that it will require a second vote at next month’s meeting. Its sponsors are Commissioners Justin Biggs and Kyle Ward, who say the new board will be charged with thinking about the economy, as well as “just” health. It is unclear who will be responsible for collecting resumes, although Dr. Martha Buchanan, who is Knox County’s health officer and has been in charge of the county’s pandemic testing, contact tracing and record keeping, appears to have been drafted for the task.
Nearly three hours of public forum stretched Monday’s meeting out until after midnight. Mayor Glenn Jacobs, the one member of the health board who is popular with the protestors, ducked out around 9 p.m., leaving the matter in the hands of his acting chief of staff, Dwight Van de Vate, who warned the commissioners that rounding up an epidemiologist, a virologist, two economists, two business owners, two social workers, two medical professionals and a partridge in a pear tree might take a while.
Van de Vate is probably understating the difficulty level, considering the abuse that members of the board of health have endured. Buchanan, an ex-officio member of the board, was singled out for abuse on social media this week after an internet troll published a blurry, out-of-focus photo of her allegedly sitting maskless in the audience during Monday’s commission meeting. A couple of clear-eyed observers pointed out that she was indeed wearing a mask, but it didn’t seem to have much effect on the anti-mask group who continued to heap on the insults.
So how does one recruit a virologist, an epidemiologist, two economists and assorted professionals for a position that will expose them to criticism, ridicule and cyber bullying?
The anti-mask group’s demonstrated disdain for professionals associated with the University of Tennessee could pose another problem. Where’s the county going to find a couple of economists willing to work for free if not at UT’s Haslam School of Business? Economists R Us?
Reminds me of a story that Abraham Lincoln used to tell about the guy who was asked how it felt to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.
“But for the honor of it all,” he said, “I’d just as soon walk.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.