‘There Is No Us and Them’
Pledging to protect the community, Buchanan expresses dismay at the divisions over the pandemic response following the Board of Health’s demise.
Three days after the Knox County Commission gave her sole authority over public health orders during the pandemic by disbanding the Board of Health, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, lamented the politicization of the COVID-19 response.
Buchanan is waiting for guidance from the Knox County Law Director before making decisions about public health orders.Buchanan said the heated rhetoric surrounding the county’s mask mandate, business restrictions and other actions taken in response to the gravest public health emergency in a century took her by surprise.
“Over the years, when we've planned for pandemics and large-scale responses to infectious diseases, I never anticipated the rhetoric, all of this politicization, to be as considerable, and quite honestly as dangerous, as it has been over the past year,” she said during Thursday’s Health Department media briefing.
Buchanan said many opinions about the COVID-19 response have been the result of misinformation.
“We've tried our best to clarify so much of this inaccurate information, but at times it seems that there's just too much of it, from too many different powerful and loud voices, for the facts to stand to chance,” she said. “The adage that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its boots on seems to have more meaning now than perhaps any other time in recent history.”
Buchanan’s statements at the briefing were her first public comments since the aftermath of Monday’s County Commission 8-3 vote to jettison the Board of Health as a policy-making panel. The board will serve only in an advisory role moving forward.
Months of protests preceded the vote. Groups of residents attended County Commission meetings to raise objections to the Board of Health’s actions, some citing personal liberty as their primary concern and others complaining about the effect of restrictions on local businesses. Others, including many local business owners, spoke in support of the board and its actions.
The rhetoric got heated in public and threatening behind the scenes. Board of Health members reported receiving threats, as did county commissioners.
Opponents of the Board of Health cheered its demise. A photo of Commissioner Justin Biggs, who voted in favor of disbanding the Board of Health, celebrating at the City County Building with a band of anti-board activists went viral on Knox County-area Facebook pages.
The vote came as case counts, hospitalization rates and deaths from COVID-19 have decreased, lending some credence to the notion that public health mandates have been effective as vaccines have become more widely available.
The rate of new cases each day in early January was more than six times higher than it was at the end of March. Hospital inpatients with COVID-19 in the region dropped from nearly 700 in early January to 118 on Jan. 30.
The drop has leveled off, however. On March 1, Knox County’s seven-day average of new cases was 11 per 100,000 residents; on March 31, the number hadn’t changed. Deaths from COVID-19 have held steady at one per day throughout March.
Public health officials locally and nationally are concerned that relaxing health measures now will cause another surge in cases. Buchanan said COVID-19 is still actively spreading in the community and the need for following the “five core actions” — wearing masks, practicing social distancing, washing hands, disinfecting surfaces and staying home when sick — are as important now as ever.
“All of us as a community, for the health of each other, need to continue to observe and practice the five core actions, whether you're vaccinated or not,” she said. “I'm fully vaccinated and I observe the five core actions every day to reduce risk to others.”
The Board of Health’s orders include an open-ended mandate to wear masks indoors when social distancing can’t be maintained, but it’s loosened other restrictions in recent weeks.
Board members incrementally moved the mandatory bar and restaurant closing time from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. and allowed the restriction on gathering sizes to lapse. Event venues are now allowed to operate with the same capacity restrictions — 50 percent of the people allowed by fire codes — as restaurants.
County Commission’s decision means that deliberations over adding, continuing or lifting restrictions will no longer be required to be made in public. Buchanan can consult anyone she pleases — including the advisory-only Board of Health — privately, and she will have sole legal authority to issue public health orders during the pandemic.
Still, Buchanan said she would maintain the Health Department’s policy of transparency about COVID-19 information and data.
“We remain committed,” she said. “We will continue to work every day to do what's right, to share accurate information so the public can make informed decisions, and work diligently to protect our community.”
The public health orders issued by the Board of Health will remain in place for now. The ordinance commissioners approved on Monday doesn’t take effect until April 13. Buchanan said she’s waiting on guidance from the county Law Department before making decisions about the future of the orders.
“I've requested a meeting (with the Law Department) and I'm waiting to hear back on that meeting,” she said.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who like Buchanan serves on the Board of Health, has opposed most local public health orders and supported removing the board’s authority. But he has expressed support for and confidence in Buchanan.
Buchanan said she has not spoken with Jacobs since Monday’s vote, though she has had conversations with his chief operating officer, Dwight Van de Vate, and county Finance Director Chris Caldwell.
Buchanan said she’s disheartened by the divisiveness in the community.
“I encourage everyone on all sides of the debate, to seek first to understand, to pause before making assumptions, to show kindness to your fellow community members and to remember, there is no us and them,” she said. “There is only us.”