Public health officials have two groups of people they must answer to as part of their duties—the elected and/or governmental officials who hire and fire them and the citizens of the municipality they’re charged with keeping safe. Sometimes those duties are determined to run counter to each other as it appears is the case in St. Clair County.
Last month, the county’s board of commissioners voted 4 to 2 to separate the joint position Dr. Annette Mercatante currently holds of medical health officer and medical director. Although those voting in favor of the motion listed a variety of reasons for wanting this change, the discussion essentially started when Mercatante issued a four-week mask mandate for all St. Clair County schools that went into effect after the holiday break in January.
It’s surprising that the commission did not heed their own administrator’s recommendations to not split the positions. It’s surprising that although several commissioners acknowledged it will be a challenge to find a qualified individual to serve in those roles, they still voted to go with that option. Who’s to say that the next person they hire won’t issue similar mandates if virus numbers spike again? Additionally, it’s wrong that some commissioners apparently assumed Mercatante would want to apply to keep her current job. As a candidate her fate would lie with the same board members who’ve publicly criticized her past decisions. Following the vote, Mercatante said she would not seek either position.
This latest development serves another example of how the pandemic, although waning at the moment, still divides us. Conversations around COVID-19 continue to be highly charged. In recent months, the county’s health department has had to limit comments on their Facebook page because the verbal attacks users were lobbing at each other and toward public officials was getting extreme.
Let’s hope the county can find a good solution to the reorganization of their health department leadership and that any potential impact on its residents as part of a transition will be minimal.