Gostin was instrumental in updating and bolstering state public health laws after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to address emerging public health threats, including bioterrorism, infectious diseases and civilian mass casualties.
“What state lawmakers are doing now,” he said, “is very unwise, because in the middle of a pandemic, public health officials need to act quickly, flexibly and decisively. As we have more variants, epidemiological conditions will change. But these laws are cast in stone so no matter what happens on the ground, public health officers will be prevented from doing their jobs.”
Republican state lawmakers argue that governors and other executive branch officials went too far with pandemic-related restrictions, and they want to alter public health laws to curb such moves in the future.
During the debate over the public health bill in Ohio, for example, Republican state Sen. Rob McColley told The Columbus Dispatch, "Essentially, we've granted the governor’s office and the [Ohio] Department of Health lawmaking authority that it simply does not have under our constitution. … The bill would simply put in place checks and balances that as we’ve seen over the past year are absolutely necessary.”
In May, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents local health departments, collaborated with Minnesota-based legal research group the Network for Public Health Law to highlight what they called an attack on public health authority in statehouses across the country.
The report found that “dissatisfaction and anger at perceived overreaches by governors and public health officials in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an onslaught of legislative proposals to eliminate or limit the emergency powers and public health authority used by these officials.”
Separately, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents state agencies, published a comprehensive report on bills and newly enacted laws, saying they threaten to undermine state public health systems.
“We’ve seen these types of bills in the past,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of public and government affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “The problem is that now they’re gaining traction.
“Even the bills that ultimately fail are putting questions into people’s minds,” Casalotti said. “If they’re hearing their elected officials claim that public health rules are government overreach, that they aren’t necessary, people will start thinking they have permission not to follow them. With vaccinations stalling out, we need people to be following public health rules.”
Last week, California and New York City announced they are requiring all government employees to get vaccinated or submit to regular COVID-19 testing. Hospitals and other employers nationwide are beginning to require workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations, and schools are considering mask mandates for the fall, particularly for kids under 12 who aren’t eligible for vaccinations.