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Strong health agency a must

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors is scheduled in June to vote on an ordinance that will spell out the powers of the health department to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and, into the future, any future epidemic. The ordinance will answer the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision in Wisconsin Legislature v. Palm that voided the state Department of Health Services from enforcing Safer at Home rules and, by extension, potentially curtailed the authority of local health departments.

Our advice is simple. We urge the board to pass a robust ordinance that fully empowers the county health department to manage epidemics. We call on the board to reject the libertarian argument that the local economy is better served with weak rules to curtail infectious disease. Health departments don’t hinder local economies: they allow them to flourish.

Recently, county corporation counsel Scott Corbett said he hoped the board would be able to pass an ordinance that would bring both the health department and supervisors together in common purpose to deal with outbreaks of disease.

“Unlike what happened in the State Capitol, we are going to do this together,” Corbett said, referring to the partisan controversy over Safer at Home. “This will not be just one arm of the government acting. It will be passed by the entire board.”

This sounds fine, although it may be a little unrealistic to hope in today’s environment (five months from a presidential election) that Marathon County could take any COVID-19 action without winding up in some wrangle-tangle controversy. We note the federal lawsuit filed last week by 17 organizers of last month’s “Reopen Wisconsin” movement against Dane and Milwaukee counties, which are asserting their own powers to enforce Safer at Home rules. These days, it’s hard to stay out of legal trouble.

We think the county board needs to give its health department the tools it needs to deal with a pernicious disease like COVID-19, not just for the present moment, but over the long haul.

History is our guide. In their recent paper, “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu,” researchers point out that strong interventions to fight that year’s Spanish Flu not only reduced fatalities, but also laid the groundwork for a more robust economic recovery after the disease faded away.

The 1918 flu is the mirror image of the current COVID-19 pandemic. It was both a health and economic crisis. The U.S. death toll was 675,000 people. Manufacturing took an 18 percent hit. Cities across the country closed schools, theaters and churches. They banned funerals and restricted business hours. In all of these restrictions, however, some cities were strict, others lax. The researchers show that lax cities such as Birmingham, Philadelphia, Nashville, Kansas City and San Francisco had between 600 and 1,300 Spanish Flu deaths per 100,000 people, while strict cities such as Seattle, Oakland, Portland, Los Angeles and Spokane had only around 500 deaths per 100,000 people.

But that’s not all. After the pandemic, the strict cities had a bounce in employment not seen in the lax cities. A city that acted 10 days early to head off a pandemic, say the researchers, was rewarded with a 5 percent boost in employment after the disease disappeared. A Midwestern example gives a good summary. Minneapolis was a strict city, while St. Paul was lax. The first of the Twin Cities had fewer Spanish Flu deaths and a more robust employment once the 1918 Pandemic was over.

The county board needs to give its health department not just minimal powers to quarantine individuals, but also powers to handle community spread when a pandemic reignites and begins to claim more victims. A strong health department is what a strong economy is based on. Who would frequent a restaurant not inspected by a health department? Who would buy a steak from a supermarket not inspected by the county? The answer is practically no one.

In passing an ordinance in June, the county board will err if it “balances” empowering the health department with saving the local economy. That’s because they are one and the same thing.