The Knox County Board of Health took over Knox County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the health department on Wednesday, and served notice that it’s not playing politics by voting 7-1 to require people over the age of 12 to wear facemasks in public indoor spaces. The emergency order is effective Friday, July 3.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs was the only no vote.
The change (from health department to Board of Health) came because the county law director opined that Gov. Bill Lee’s Tennessee Pledge mandated it as the county moves into the next phase of reopening for business. The Tennessee Pledge was released in April with the goals of helping Tennesseans return to work in a safe environment, restore their livelihoods and reboot our state’s economy, and is based on the premise that we have “flattened the curve” (as we used to say back in those hopeful days when we were assured that the virus would disappear like snowflakes in the late spring heat). This has not come to pass, and the coronavirus is enjoying a comeback.
Jacobs has made a point of not wearing a mask in public, and he’s not the Lone Ranger. This appears to be standard practice among Trump-supporting Republican officeholders and aspirants these days. Earlier this week, for example, Jacobs and U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett appeared at a hugged-up, back-slapping campaign event for U.S. Senate candidate Manny Sethi with hardly a mask in sight.
Event organizers have announced that there will be no masks or social distancing at President Donald Trump’s big Third of July event at Mt. Rushmore, despite the news that viral infection numbers are spiking, particularly in the West and Southeast. Tennessee is one of the new hotspots, now contributing more than 1,000 new cases a day to the national total of nearly 2,800,000 cases since the pandemic began. Around 1.5 million of those are active cases, and there have been nearly 140,000 deaths.
The Knox County Board of Health members are all medical professionals except for the mayor and the school superintendent. Prior to the law director’s opinion, state law mandated that county health officer, Dr. Martha Buchanan, an ex-officio (non-voting) member of the board, was in charge of decision-making, although her power may have been more theoretical than real, since Jacobs is her boss. Many wondered what this change would mean. It didn’t take long to find out.
The panel’s chair, Dr. Jack E. Gotcher, said that COVID-19 cases have increased by 55 percent in Knox County, and that he was worried. Dr. Patrick O’Brien said he wanted a public-health order mandating face covering in indoor spaces.
“Things have backslid, and I’m really concerned,” O’Brien said. “Our behavior was not what I was hoping for.”
When Jacobs asked about the enforcement mechanism, O’Brien said that violating a public health order is a Class C misdemeanor that could carry up to a $50 fine, but said the recommendation would be to hand offenders a mask.
At this point, Assistant Law Director Myers Morton pitched a fit. He said the Board of Health couldn’t go beyond the parameters of the governor’s order, the sole purpose of which was to free up hospital capacity and that they shouldn’t be talking about putting somebody in jail for not wearing a mask. He said their proposed order was unconstitutional and mean to the hard of hearing, who rely on lip reading.
“You’re scientists, not politicians,” he said. “No one elected you.”
Unpersuaded, the board voted 7-1 to issue the order and the meeting adjourned. Jacobs slipped on a cloth mask and walked off the dais.
Mask-wearing Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon is not a member of the panel, but watched the meeting with interest and says she is relieved by the mask mandate, something she ordered for city-owned buildings earlier this week.
“I am grateful for the medical professionals who serve on this volunteer board. They understand the science and made a decision in the best interest of public health. Wearing masks is inconvenient, but will save lives and help keep our economy open,” Kincannon said.
Members of the Knox County Board of Health:
- Dianna C. Drake, PharmD, president, District 2, Tennessee Valley Pharmacists Association
- Maria C. Hurt, DNP, MSN, FNP-BC, clinical assistant professor, The University of Tennessee College of Nursing
- Jack E. Gotcher Jr., DMD, PhD, University Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons; professor, Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, The University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine
- Glenn Jacobs, mayor, Knox County government
- Patrick O’Brien, MD, Col. USAF, MC, FS, chief medical review officer, Drug Demand Reduction Program, National Guard Bureau
- James E. Shamiyeh, MD, MBA, MSPH, FCCP, senior vice-president and chief quality officer, University Health System Inc.
- Marcy J. Souza, DVM, MPH, MPPA, DABVP (Avian), DACVPM associate professor and director of Veterinary Public Health Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences,
The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine
- Bob Thomas, superintendent, Knox County Schools (represented Wednesday by Lisa Wagoner, MSN, RN, NCSN, KCS health services supervisor)
State law says the legislative body of each county may establish a board of health. The board shall consist of the following:
- The county mayor
- The director of schools or a designee appointed annually by the director
- Two (2) physicians licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee, who shall be nominated by the medical society serving that county
- One (1) dentist licensed to practice dentistry in the state of Tennessee, who shall be nominated by the dental society serving that county
- One (1) pharmacist licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee, who shall be nominated by the pharmaceutical society serving that county
- One (1) registered nurse licensed to practice in the state of Tennessee, who shall be nominated by the nurses association serving that county.
On one thing Morton was correct. These are not politicians.
(And yes, we can count. State law provides for a 7-member board; Knox County has 8.)
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties.