Local GOP lawmaker slams Republicans' vote to hurt health board as virus cases spike

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If a Tennessee county commission's ordinance passes in January, the local board of health will no longer be able to set health-related regulations.  

Republican members of the commission of Knox County, Tennessee, voted on Tuesday to weaken the county's board of health in a move aimed at determining who makes and implements health-related policy for the county's residents.

"If we proceed with this ordinance, this body will undermine our public health infrastructure and seriously demoralize the health care professionals battling to save lives every day," said the commission's chair, Larsen Jay, a Republican.

The commission serves the third-most populous county in Tennessee, with its county seat, Knoxville, the third-largest city in the state after Nashville and Memphis.

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The commissioners voted 6-4-1 in favor of an ordinance dissolving the Knox County board of health's power to make policy, including on safety measures related to the coronavirus.

All six commissioners who voted yes to the proposal are Republicans, while Jay voted no. Voting with Jay were another Republican and the commission's two Democrats, with one Republican declining to vote.

"Yes, believe it," Jay wrote in a post on his campaign website on Facebook. "Tonight, despite living in the worst place for COVID in the world, several Commissioners took the first step in dissolving the Board of Health and dismantling our health infrastructure. I cringe at what January will look like in our community."

A majority of the commissioners must vote to approve the ordinance after a second reading on Jan. 25. If they pass it, the county board of health would no longer be able to set health-related regulations.

Previously, in working to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the board of health implemented a 10 p.m closing time for restaurants with dine-in service and restricted them to half their usual capacity of diners, a local news station reported.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, the Knox County Health Department senior director, said now is not an appropriate time to consider such a measure.

"Deciding who has authority to make decisions right now is like confronting a wildfire and arguing over who needs to hold the hose. It's not appropriate," Buchanan said.

Jay noted, "You heard it directly from the healthcare professionals during public forum. They're exhausted and they don't understand why you don't care about them."

As of Tuesday, Tennessee had the highest per capita number of new coronavirus cases in the United States, according to the New York Times' analysis. The state had more than 515,000 cases, and 6,000 people had died of COVID-19.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.