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Increased accountability measures for State Health Officer adopted by Alabama Committee of Public Health

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and the State Committee of Public Health adopted an administrative rule change to the State Health Officer’s emergency powers on Thursday. 

The change, while straightforward, addresses concerns expressed by state legislators in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent prevention measures implemented across the country by local, state and federal governments. 

In a unanimous vote, the committee moved to prevent the State Health Officer from issuing or authorizing any emergency powers during a pandemic without the governor’s direct consent, approval, and signature. 

Dr. Scott Harris, State Health Officer since 2018, served as the top public health official during the pandemic. 

“Today, the State Committee of Public Health ensured the Legislature’s concerns were heard, questions were answered, and that we keep our word when we commit to offering solutions,” Harris said. “After speaking with many legislators and the Governor’s office, the State Committee of Public Health and I wanted to address this issue directly.

“This rule proposal offers added layers of transparency and accountability for the public and provides the Governor and the legislature with additional checks and balances.”  

RELATED: Givhan seeks to limit power of public health chief

Previous drafts of the change would have subjected every emergency order to legislative oversight through the Legislative Council. Given the separation of the executive and legislative powers, that would’ve required lawmakers and the governor to sign off on each and every health order issued by the State Health Officer.

Due to those concerns, ADPH’s legal division said they returned to an original draft that requires the governor’s signature and approval of any statewide emergency orders. 

Dr. Gregory Ayers, the committee’s chairman, said the change is a reflection of heightened awareness and engagement on public health issues since the pandemic – and that state health officials are, “here to work with legislators, listen to their concerns, and land on common-sense solutions to ongoing issues.” 

“Dr. Harris and his team have worked diligently with our elected officials to ensure we can resolve this ongoing issue internally,” Ayers said. “We’re here to offer you factual and transparent information for you and your families, and with Dr. Harris as our State Health Officer, the health and wellbeing of Alabamians is in the best care it can be.”

During the 2023 legislative session, Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) raised concerns about the state health committee’s composition and appointing authority of the State Health Officer. 

Officials say, even if unsatisfactory to lawmakers like Givhan’s intent to strip the appointing powers away from the State Committee of Public Health, the rule change adopted on Thursday provides a new playing field going into the 2024 legislative session. 

“There’s no question that navigating through the pandemic was very challenging, and the measures that ADPH recommended to protect public health were understandably difficult for the public as well,” Harris said. “Still, we’re committed to maintaining the integrity of public health without intrusion and keeping Alabama open for business at all costs.

“Although COVID-19 is something we will have to live with from now on, it’s time we move on from that narrative and return to business as usual,” while also recognizing the immense loss of life and permanent impact the pandemic left on Alabamians. 

Grayson Everett is the state and political editor for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @Grayson270

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