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How Will SB5 Impact Local Response To Statewide Spike In COVID-19 Cases?

Weekly COVID-19 press briefings were held in 2020, attended by Tippecanoe County public health officials, county commissioners, city officials, Purdue representatives, and local hospital heads. (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

The latest surge in COVID-19 cases is raising questions about what, if any, health restrictions should be reimposed to protect public health. 

Governor Holcomb has so far declined to enact a mask mandate for schools this fall, even as the CDC and local health officials have made masking recommendations for teachers, staff, and students.

That means any health restrictions will need to be enacted locally - and because of SB5, a new state law - will need the approval of local city or county officials. 

Ryan Hoff, Director of Government Relations for the Association of Indiana Counties, said he wouldn’t want to say whether there is any appetite for local health restrictions. 

“They are separately elected officials,” he said. “They are responding to their constituency. It’s hard to generalize from one county to the next.”

And, Hoff said, it is hard to predict whether counties might consider taking a more localized approach to COVID. 

“It may depend on whether or not any escalation of the COVID numbers were localized to some situation,” he said. “Typically from what I’ve seen when a county gets involved in declaring a public health emergency it’s because some local set of circumstances are playing into it.”

Kim Irwin is the administrator of the Indiana Public Health Association. She said one of the questions left by SB5 is whether local health officials will need to declare a local emergency if the statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration expires. 

“We don’t have a clear path forward,” she said. “Partly because the law isn’t clear, Senate Enrolled Act 5 isn’t clear, and partly because things continue to evolve.”

Irwin said from her perspective a statewide response to COVID restrictions is preferable to a local patchwork. 

“I think it’s extremely important to have a coordinated and comprehensive approach,” she said. “The extent to which we can have consistency and be following the evidence and the guidance and the science is extremely helpful and a patchwork approach largely doesn’t do that.”

Last week, Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Scott K. Douglas said he would be discussing a mask mandate with county commissioners. He said he understands that commissioners are weighing both public health and the economic impact of restrictions.

“Commissioners have a responsibility for not just public safety but also the economic wellbeing for the county,” he said. “It’s a give and a take with public health and county leadership probably across the state.”

Montgomery County commissioners have not responded to repeated requests for comment. 

In Tippecanoe County, Health Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler has recommended mask requirements for schools and a return to masks in indoor public spaces but said he has not requested county commissioners put any health restrictions in place. 

“One thing that we all want is to not take a step backwards and not have to go back to restrictions and other sorts of mandatory measures,” he said. “What we’re really trying to encourage is more people to get vaccinated.”

Adler said he has a good relationship with county commissioners and doesn’t foresee any problems being created by SB5. 

“Where the concern with SB5 comes in is looking at the future,” he said. “If there’s another public health emergency where different people hold all these offices who may not see eye to eye on all these things, that could create a problem down the road. That may be the case currently in other counties in the state of Indiana but fortunately in Tippecanoe I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”

Tippecanoe County commissioners have also not responded to repeated requests for comment. 

Other health officials in Tippecanoe County worry that SB5 may slow response to COVID-19. 

Dr. Jim Bien is the Chief Medical Officer for IU Health Arnett. He said both IU Health Arnett and Franciscan Health have full emergency departments from a mix of COVID and unrelated illnesses. 

“I think unfortunately Senate Bill 5 encumbers a rapid public health response to issues that are best handled by public health officials,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be better if we get coordination and collaboration with elected officials but they are under unique pressures that perhaps a public health official isn’t. It may slow responses that are otherwise best for the community.”

Governor Holcomb extended Indiana's current public health emergency and remaining COVID executive orders on Thursday, but did not reinstate any other restrictions.


UPDATE: This story was updated to include Governor Holcomb's decision to extend the public health emergency while refraining from reinstating any health restrictions.