KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County commissioners have voted to strip the Board of Health of its regulating power.
The move will instead turn the group into an advisory board for the county’s health department and its health director, Dr. Martha Buchanan.
The decision follows months of back and forth, and passionate arguments from both supporters and critics.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Dr. Buchanan. “It’s been trending that way for quite some time. So I wasn’t surprised that that’s how the vote went, at all.”
The question now is how will the policy change play out?
“Regardless of who the law gives the authority to, my recommendations will continue to be based on public health and based in evidence,” Dr. Buchanan said. “The recommendations won’t change, the guidelines of what our community should be doing don’t change. COVID hasn’t changed.”
What happens to current regulations?
Over the past year, the health board has enacted a handful of regulations: the mask mandate, social gathering limit, and bar and restaurant curfew.
We asked Dr. Buchanan if she foresees those remaining intact following the board’s dissolution.
“What I can say for sure is I will continue to recommend the practices that the CDC is recommending, such as masking, social distancing, staying home if you’re sick, and washing your hands,” Dr. Buchanan said. “I will continue to make recommendations based on public health. Whether or not they are regulations is not clear to me.”
When does the change take effect?
The Board of Health power shift didn’t happen overnight.
The Knox County mayor’s office says since the action was completed by ordinance, it takes effect 15 days after its adoption (so not prior to Tuesday, April 13th).
Which members will stay on as advisors?
Dr. Patrick O’Brien wrote a letter to Knox County Commission Chairman Larsen Jay dated Monday, in which he said:
“It was an honor and privilege to serve on the Knox County Board of Health with my fellow board members, but I feel as though given the direction that has been set by the Knox County Commission, it is time for me to step aside and focus my time and energy elsewhere.”-Dr. Patrick O’Brien
His fellow colleagues we heard from say they are choosing to stay on board.
Dr. James Shamiyeh provided WATE with the following statement:
“My plan is to continue to serve. Given my involvement in the past several months, I hope that I may be able to make some contribution in this advisory capacity.”-Dr. James Shamiyeh
“If that’s the direction that we’re headed, I am committed to serving for as long as I’m asked,” said Citizen Representative Ani Roma. “I do enjoy giving back, I enjoy being a part of something, and I really do just want to help.”
“I will be honored to continue on in an advisory capacity for Dr. Buchanan, if asked to do so,” wrote Dr. Jack Gotcher. “I am proud to have been a member of this Board and very proud of each and every Board member for their hard work over the past year.”
How are local leaders responding?
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs issued this statement to WATE following commission’s vote: “As I stated at Commission’s workshop last week, I am in favor of moving the Knox County Board of Health to an advisory board. This isn’t because I think that the members of the Board of Health aren’t doing the best they can to protect Knox County against COVID-19; it’s because no governmental body or authority—especially an unelected one—should have unlimited power. That’s something that makes me very uncomfortable.”
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said prior to commission’s meeting, “The Board of Health has been heroic in their leadership, as has Dr. Buchanan. I appreciate all their hard work and applaud them for helping lead us through this global pandemic, they’ve done a great job.”
This unfolds alongside a similar proposal at the state level.
Representative Jason Zachary is spearheading legislation that would move the state’s independent health boards to only advisory roles.
He said he’s thankful for what Knox County Commission did, and still pushing for statewide change.
“It really doesn’t change anything on the state level because it’s still something that needs to be addressed and fixed within code,” Zachary said. “There is still a sense of urgency from me, we’ve already passed it in the House, it’s in the Senate, and so I’m going to testify tomorrow, but it’s up to our Senate colleagues to pass this and address this once and for all in Tennessee code.”
Zachary’s bill goes before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.