Senate Bill 5, currently being considered by the Indiana House, is a dangerous experiment Hoosiers would soon regret.
Guided by facts, science and a single-minded mission to keep you and your community healthy, local public health officials take very seriously the responsibility to protect human health and the important balancing act of science, economic impact and personal freedoms. Our organizations represent more than 1,300 local health department employees and thousands of other doctors, nurses and public health professionals in Indiana.
SB 5 is a direct response to actions taken by local health departments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supporters argue 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 effects on local businesses by risking the health of consumers and workers who keep those businesses operating.
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. And while some critics claim overreach, a large majority of public health orders or sanctions use a least-restrictive approach.
If legislators were to pass SB 5, Hoosiers chould expect dangerous consequences on several fronts.
The bill gives politicians full control over major public health decisions. Most of them 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 and tuberculosis mandates for infectious patients who are uncompliant. This oversight would expand to lead in our drinking water, deadly bacteria in our public swimming pools and leaking storage tanks buried underground.
In a twist of sad irony, we’ve spoken to several city and county officials around the state who would prefer not to have these added responsibilities. Unfortunately, if SB 5 were to pass, that choice would be made for them.
Another major concern is shifting the appeals process from courts to city and county boards. This would require significant additional infrastructure on the city and county levels and would 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 be allowed to stay 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.
We understand no one likes being told what to do. But when actions can cause harm to yourself or others, everyone can see why a shared set of public health rules is important. This is why we have traffic lights, standards for food preparation and laws banning public urination.
Measures taken during the pandemic were hard on us all, but we must remember that public health officials exist to manage and react to crises such as COVID-19. Consider what we do when a home or business catches fire. We call the fire department, experts working on behalf of the public to limit damage and protect lives. Public health officials are the experts trained to deal with infectious diseases.
We must continue to trust data and science. The negative effects 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. Please contact your local state representative and ask them to vote no.
Dr. Jeremy P. Adler is president of the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials and health officer with the Tippecanoe County Health Department. Susan Jo Thomas is president of the Indiana Public Health Association and executive director of Covering Kids & Families of Indiana.