It now seems the Indiana Legislature is determined to pass Senate Bill 5, which is a direct response to actions taken by local health departments during the COVID-19 pandemic. We write this column to educate Hoosiers on the many dangers of SB 5 with a plea to Governor Holcomb that he veto the bill.
Our organizations represent more than 1,300 local health department employees and thousands of doctors, nurses, public health professionals and hospital leaders in Indiana.
Guided by facts, science and a single-minded mission to keep you and your community healthy, local public health officials and our hospital and clinical care partners take very seriously the responsibility to protect human health and the important balancing act between science, economic impact and personal freedoms.
Supporters of SB 5 have argued their intent is to protect the rights of business owners and ensure economic health, but the reality is that weakening health oversight can have terrible impacts on local businesses by risking the health of the consumers and workers who keep those businesses operating.
While sometimes it may seem that public health is pitted against economic vitality, it really is not health versus economy, but rather the long-term protection of economic success through smart, evidence-based strategies designed to reduce disease transmission with short-term protection strategies.
If SB-5 were to become law, Hoosiers should expect dangerous consequences on several fronts.
First, the bill gives politicians full control over major public health decisions, most of whom lack the expertise needed to properly engage in unusually complex public health subject and regulatory matters.
These elected officials would now be responsible for restaurants experiencing outbreaks of E. coli, norovirus and hepatitis A. They would be responsible for legionella in hospital settings, lead in our drinking water and deadly bacteria in our public swimming pools.
Another major concern is shifting local health enforcement appeals processes from courts to city and county boards. This would require significant additional infrastructure on the city and county level and would also add another, cumbersome layer for public health officials to navigate.
Even worse, until an appeal is heard by a city or county board, the entity in question would have an opportunity to remain open, even if it is not following health orders. With a process lasting potentially weeks or months, this provision alone could lead to catastrophic disease within a community.
SB 5 also prevents a local health department from implementing orders more restrictive than those issued by the Governor’s Office, unless such orders are approved by a county executive, or a combination of approval by a city legislative body or mayor.
Given the diversity of population density and different public health problems throughout our state, a one-size-fits-all strategy would do little to combat public health emergencies. Public health officials must have the ability to protect their communities by tailoring public health measures to the specific needs of the populations they serve.
These decisions must be made quickly and often with little time for preparation. Experience and expertise are critical to making the best decisions for our communities.
We must continue to trust data and science. The negative impacts of COVID-19 could and would have been much worse had it not been for the difficult decisions made by public health officials to protect their communities. We have accomplished a great deal.
SB-5 would most certainly threaten those accomplishments and expose Hoosiers to even greater harm in the future.
Jeremy P. Adler, M.D. is president of Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials (INSACCHO) and Health Officer, Tippecanoe County Health Department. Susan Jo Thomas, JD, MSW is president of Indiana Public Health Association (IPHA) and Executive Director, Covering Kids & Families of Indiana.