The selection process and authority of Alabama's State Health Officer continue to concern those who identified a potential flaw in the system after the COVID pandemic.
It ended badly for some Alabama business owners.
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris currently has the authority to shut down much of the state, including public buildings, parks and beaches. His orders during the pandemic also led to the closing of businesses and churches.
Lawmakers say that sweeping authority must be checked, many of whom have previously attempted to change how these health situations are handled. And they are gearing up for another fight over this issue in the next legislative session.
Appointed by the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA), the job of the State Health Officer is to oversee the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and inform the public of pertinent health information. But in March 2020, Harris stood by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey as she declared a state public health emergency and issued multiple orders. These orders prohibited restaurants from serving on-premises, closed schools and stopped "non-essential" workers from going to work.
But many Alabamians barred from work thought their jobs were essential, too—essential to put food on their tables and roofs over their families.
"We understand that the health orders issued will be a hardship on Alabamians," Harris said at the time. "We must, first and foremost, protect the health and safety of our citizens. This decision has not been made lightly and will help to prevent the spread of this virus."
Some businesses never recovered from Harris' pandemic orders, and concerned citizens now believe that abridging their rights to individual liberty should not be within the State Health Officer's power.
Despite such scrutiny, Harris received a 7% raise this year, raising his salary to around $328,000.
State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia), a physician himself, told 1819 News he has nothing against Harris personally. Rather, it is the position and its power that he is concerned about the most.
State Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) filed a bill last session to ensure accountability to the position and to prevent overreach.
"I think so many people did not understand that the State Health Officer was not accountable to any elected officials, and we as elected officials are accountable to the people," Givhan said. "But there is a small board of doctors that appoints the State Health Officers, and I think there are still people that are unaware of that. When they become aware of that, they're like, 'Oh no! The governor should appoint.'"
Last year, the bill failed in the legislature because it stalled in the Healthcare Committee. However, Givhan said he isn't quitting.
"I will be filing a similar bill to what I filed last year," Givhan said. "I will be prefiling it before the session."
This time, Givhan will request to have the bill go through the State Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by State Sen. Tom Butler (R-Madison), a co-sponsor of the bill. The vice-chair of that committee is State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine), who saw the damage of overreaching orders firsthand in his district.
"Generally, I am certainly in favor of making sure we don't go back through the mandates, whether they be mask or occupancy issues or things like that like we did before," said Elliott. "You know, we killed thousands of Alabama small businesses—the government did—and that's something we ought to be ashamed of. That will have impacts on those people, their lives, their children's lives for generations, and we did it and we don't need to do it again."
With the committee change, Givhan is optimistic about the bill, given the early start they are getting on discussions.
"I truly believe if I can get it to the floor, it will pass a floor vote," he said. "The trick will be getting it to the floor."
While the bill will be similar to last year's, this one will give a little more autonomy to the governor.
Givhan believes lawmakers will aggressively pursue conservative issues in the next session, and he welcomes support from the public on the bill.
"They can call their local representatives and senator and let them know what's important to them," Givhan added. "And I think reaching out to the governor's office is important to let them know this isn't just something that will pass away with the diminishing of COVID. This is not a passing fancy for the people of Alabama."
Other legislation on the docket next session will include a bill prohibiting the government from issuing mask mandates. State Rep. Brock Colvin (R-Albertville) pre-filed the bill, which still allows licensed medical facilities and state and local detention facilities to issue mask mandates.
Looking at the evidence, Stutts said mask mandates did nothing to flatten the curve during the pandemic. He also said there is proof the vaccine did not stop the spread of the virus. Hopefully, the state has learned from all this, he said, and shutdowns and overreaching mandates are now a thing of the past.
"If you want to wear a mask, wear one, but I don't want any mandates," Stutts told 1819 News. "I'm hopeful that people learned that it didn't work last time and it just ran its course. We totally lost sight of everything."
COVID showed us how much power the State Health Officer position holds, Givhan said, but he understands that playing Monday morning quarterback is not what he needs to be doing. Thus, he is moving forward, ensuring that whoever is in the position will be held accountable by the public.
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