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Missouri Attorney General threatens to sue if Jackson County restores powers to health department

A woman wearing a hoodie and heavy coat wears blue latex gloves and reaches toward a car windshield with a nasal swab in one hand and a vial in another.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Tammy Martinez, a volunteer with AIM Laboratories, explains to a patient how to self-administer the PCR test at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday morning. The public health ordinance proposed by Jackson County legislator Crystal Williams would, among other things, require people who receive a positive COVID test to report the results to the health director within one day.

An ordinance proposed by Jackson County legislator Crystal Williams would return authority to the county health director. But Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has already threatened a lawsuit.

Updated: January 12, 2022 at 5:06 PM CST
Legislator Crystal Williams says she has withdrawn her proposed ordinance after receiving an "extraordinary amount of threatened violence."

With COVID-19 worsening in the area, a Jackson County legislator is proposing an ordinance to restore some powers to the health department. But Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has already threatened to sue if it passes.

On Monday, lawmaker Crystal Williams introduced a measure that would empower the Jackson County Health Department to “protect and promote public health.”

Williams says a November ruling by a Cole County judge nullifying local health orders has decimated public health, particularly in terms of how health departments are able to deal with communicable diseases.

The ordinance, she says, would codify public health functions similar to those of home-chartered cities like Kansas City and already codified in some state rules and regulations.

“Nothing that we're discussing is new. The idea that public health is scandalous apparently is new,” she says.

In the Kansas City area, daily hospitalizations reached a record high of 211 this week, and local emergency department wait times are also at all-time highs. Statewide, nearly 3,100 people are being hospitalized with COVID in Missouri each day — 50% more than the state reported in the final week of December.

Williams says the ordinance would allow Jackson County to follow a nearly identical framework for addressing public health issues as those used by other local governments in Missouri, including Kansas City.

It would give the director of the Jackson County Health Department broad power to combat communicable diseases, including closing public and private schools, implementing mitigation measures, using isolation and quarantine measures, requiring immunizations, and penalizing violations of any measures with a fine up to $1,000.

“This is not just about masks, but it is generally about public health, which has been basically what has existed for decades,” Williams says.

The proposal drew nearly immediate criticism from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who tweeted Monday: “This is an incredibly dangerous and unprecedented overreach. If this passes, I will take action immediately to strike it down.”

Following the Cole County ruling, Schmitt filed multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of COVID-19 measures in Missouri cities and counties. He has also sued to challenge federal vaccine mandates issued by the Biden administration.

The ordinance’s co-sponsor, Jalen Anderson, said the Cole County decision and Schmitt’s subsequent lawsuits have prevented health departments from doing their jobs.

“It affected the ability of the health department to do what it was already doing,” he says. “It throws so many variables into the mix now about what the health department can do or not do.”

But even in Jackson County, not all legislators are on board. At Monday’s meeting of the Jackson County Legislature, member Tony Miller said he was concerned about the breadth and the timing of the ordinance, and worried the power of the health director could be left unchecked.

“I feel like based on a lot of this stuff, whether the perception is the reality or not, it looks heavy handed,” Miller said.

Miller said the ordinance has language that can be too broadly interpreted. He suggested the need for a public health board that would offer some measure of due process to address violations of the ordinance.

Williams agrees the ordinance, as currently drafted, could raise some civil liberties concerns. But she says the urgency of the situation weighs in favor of doing something.

“The reason we're having to do this is a reaction to a minority of people out there deciding that public health shouldn't exist,” Williams said. “We're in the midst of something that you cannot ignore.”

The ordinance moves on to the Jackson County Legislature’s health and environment committee, which meets next week.

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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