Commentary: Knox County Board of Health endangered by viral nonsense

Knox County Department of Health (Photo: Knox County)
Knox County Department of Health (Photo: Knox County)

Monday night, the Knox County Commission will vote on an ordinance that effectively would abolish the county’s Board of Health, resurrecting a zombie version of it as only an advisory body.  The signs are not promising the Board of Health will survive COVID-19 viral misinformation loose in the body politic.  The commission voted 8-3 last week to forward the change for a formal vote.

Pandemic policy would devolve to the county’s Health Director Martha Buchanan, who self-quarantined earlier this month after mild symptoms and a positive COVID-19 test.  She, however, could be pushed aside or overruled by the County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, the libertarian wrestler who consistently has opposed the strongest pandemic responses from the Board of Health.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs (Photo: knoxcounty.org)
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs (Photo: knoxcounty.org)

Commissioners may be trying to appease the “pooh-pooh the pandemic” crowd that has dogged meeting public forums, but people not swayed by science and facts will not be mollified.  Some 44 people spoke in the late September commission meeting, all but one about the Board of Health, and the vast majority critical of it and its pandemic precautions.  The October meeting had 33 speaking in public forum, most once again bleating against the health regulations and the board which crafted them.  At the Dec. 14 public forum, one speaker decried the chair for the “political stunt of moving this meeting to Zoom.

Some notes from those sessions may prove instructive about the sad state of public debate on these matters.

Speakers noted that shutdowns have not been used to battle lung cancer, COPD, Ebola, or HIV.  The comparisons seemed particularly strained about a novel airborne virus taking thousands of lives a day, leaving others with lingering and debilitating symptoms—and spread simply by breathing near people who do not even know they carry the virus.  One speaker in September identified herself as Dr. Denise Sibley, a physician from Johnson City, who drove all the way to Knoxville to complain she “was not allowed to call in hydroxychloroquine for two patients.  It was denied at Walgreens and at Walmart because I gave the COVID diagnosis.”

During the December forum, Grant King from Mascot accused the Board of Health of “following politically-motivated protocols.”  He asserted that no science supports the board’s policies such as masks and closings, and quoted Dr. Russell Blaylock that mask wearing actually may endanger the wearer.

The fact checking site Snopes reported, “Blaylock, a former neurosurgeon, has a history of issuing dubious, conspiracy-based warnings about a number of suspected dangers in both science-based medicine and the environment at large, including aspartame, chemtrails, cookware, and dental amalgams. A 2009 profile in a Canadian newspaper quoted Blaylock comments that the Affordable Healthcare Act (or Obamacare) was in actuality a depopulation effort.” That same profile added that, “Vaccines are also one of Blaylock’s many targets. He insinuates that the H1N1 virus may be the product of some pharmaceutical research project gone awry, or that it may even be a man-made virus purposely released by someone with the ‘Illuminati Depopulation Agenda.’ Blaylock appears regularly on right-wing radio programs such as the Alex Jones Show, where the popular topics are climate-change fraud and the supposed erosion of civil liberties under Obama.”

Speakers noted that shutdowns have not been used to battle lung cancer, COPD, Ebola, or HIV.  The comparisons seemed particularly strained about a novel airborne virus taking thousands of lives a day

Regarding the value of masks, let’s quote some recent research.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a very valuable item in its late November Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.  A large group or researchers analyzed what amounted to a natural experiment in Kansas which allowed counties to opt out of a gubernatorial mask mandate.  The report noted that “COVID-19 incidence decreased in 24 counties with mask mandates but continued to increase in 81 counties without mask mandates.”

The Kansas data build on the research work of Wei Lyu and George L. Wehby published in June in the journal “Health Affairs”.  They wrote, “The study provides evidence that U.S. states mandating the use of face masks in public had a greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates after issuing these mandates compared with states that did not issue mandates.”

Only Commission Chair Larsen Jay and the panel’s two Democrats, Courtney Durrett and Dasha Lundy, last week voted against the Board of Health dissolution ordinance.  Ordinances, fortunately, only become effective if they pass on two consecutive readings—so this disastrous choice regarding public health cannot happen until late January.  That gives the forces of reason some time to organize and battle the nonsense.