Douglas County health officials, doctors oppose Omaha proposal to add epidemic director

Published: Mar. 16, 2022 at 3:23 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The Douglas County Board of Health is pushing back against a proposal from the city that would strip the health director of certain emergency powers.

Local health experts told 6 News flat out that it’s a bad decision that could cost lives.

“You can put lipstick on a pig all day long, and it’s still gonna be a pig,” said Ben Gray, a former Omaha city councilman who sits on the county health board. “I don’t think this is an ordinance that ought to be passed.”

The board is completely against the decision that would strip Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse from handling pandemic-related decisions for both Douglas County and the City of Omaha.

“Public health is a specialty and what they have in this ordinance and the person they have running it is not qualified,” Gray said.

But city officials want someone else in charge.

Doctors from across the Omaha-metro area stood firm in their stance that the proposal to expand the Omaha Fire Department’s medical director to a newly created position titled “special epidemic health director” is a gross misstep.

“As a physician, I can confidently say an M.D. degree does not confer public health expertise. That’s something that has to be learned and trained over time,” said Dr. Angela Hewlett, the medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit who is also a health security expert. “The job descriptions for those two things are incredibly different.”

Doctors say the plan has huge red flags, slowing down critical decisions that Dr. Huse can make immediately. Under the ordinance, the special epidemic health director can’t take any action until City Council gives the green light.

“The health director must be in a position when they can act and act quickly. Delays do cost lives,” Dr. Alice Sato said. “It’s particularly important for vulnerable populations.”

Dr. Huse said the idea is also unfair to that would-be director, shifting their attention from first-responders. It’s also unfair to the public, who already have a vetted expert handling the day-to-day rigors of navigating a pandemic, she said.

The president of the Board of Health pointed to the hundreds of COVID-19 deaths as a reason to stop prioritizing politics over the opinions of trained medical experts.

“If we had 30 homicides in a year here, it is a tragedy. So if you have 500 deaths in one year, that’s a whole other magnitude — and the decision of 500 lives should not be left to our political egos,” Chris Rodgers said.

Omaha City Councilman Vinny Palermo is pushing for this ordinance. The measure will be presented for public comment at the next City Council meeting, slated for March 29.

Also on Wednesday: Dr. Huse announced that the county’s senior epidemiologist will be resigning at the end of the month. Dr. Anne O’Keefe is joining the staff at Creighton University, Dr. Huse told the board.

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