Briggs helps kill Zachary bill on public health authority; study it more ‘next year’

Senator cites international examples; Zachary said elected leaders give public ‘recourse’ to judge decisions

Though saying he was hardly looking for a government brawl with a fellow Farragut Republican, state Sen. Dr. Richard Briggs (District 7) nevertheless fought attempts from state Rep. Jason Zachary (District 14) to pass House Bill 1607 he sponsored, which would give county mayors, not health department leaders, final authority over public health orders.

Pointing to “a lot of evidence” in nationwide and international examples on how health-department-led authority on coronavirus public behavior procedures has, to this point in the pandemic, resulted in much fewer outbreaks and fatalities versus politically led authority, Briggs acted.

His leadership as a fill-in chair of the Senate State and Local Government Committee helped kill the bill’s Senate version (SB 1614 was presented by sponsor Ferrell Haile, R-Nashville, who is speaker pro tempore of the Senate). It’s the exact bill Zachary sponsored in the House early last week.

“This is not a criticism of Jason,” he said. “My whole thing is not even a criticism of politicians versus medical professionals, it’s just that this is too early to actually put anything into law. This would be a big change.”

If passed, “We’re changing a couple hundred years of history.”

As a result, Briggs recommended SB 1614 go to what is called “Summer Study” in Senate for more lengthy and detailed examination “sometime next year.”

With this approach, “You can bring in experts from all across the country,” Briggs added.

Zachary’s position

“In thinking through what we could have done better in terms of state coordination, local coordination and the 89 (mostly smaller) counties that are controlled by the State Health Department, and the six counties (including Knox) that have their own health department,” Zachary said the current health department power with public health orders “created confusion among people I represent in Farragut and our West Knoxville area.”

Making it clear “this has zero to do” with the abilities or competency “with Dr. (Martha) Buchanan, (Knox County Health Department senior director), she’s fantastic,” Zachary added, “It’s got to do with (Knox County) Mayor (Glenn) Jacobs; he is the one we elected to represent us, he is the one who should be making the final decision. The only recourse we have (if unhappy with a decision) is through him because that is who we elected.”

Briggs said Jacobs has direct input with KCHD as part of a nine-member Knox County Health Board alongside Buchanan and Knox County Schools superintendent Bob Thomas, plus six others “who are appointed by (Knox) County Commission. I think (appointees are) are four-year terms.”

Being in touch with county health matters through this body, in addition to other avenues, Zachary said Jacobs “listens to those around him,” adding he would seek “the advise and consent of the experts” before enacting that potential power.

Saying he had the backing of many major metro county mayors in addition to Jacobs, including Hamilton, Sullivan and Madison mayors, “I fully intend on running that legislation again next January if the people choose to send me back to Nashville,” Zachary added.

Briggs’ detailed view

Short of a vaccine, “We’re about a year too early on this” to make any such changes, said Briggs, a world renown heart surgeon. “Let’s not change laws until we can go back and do a worldwide survey and look and see what worked and what didn’t work.”

For all of his wait-and-see suggestions, and adding that in the long run “the politicians may be right,” Briggs still expressed doubts about Zachary’s proposal.

He pointed to heavy coronavirus outbreaks and deaths in Sweden and Brazil, where government officials made the decisions and put in place few restrictions on public travel and access.

“When people made political decisions it’s turned out bad,” he said. “… Sweden and Brazil said the economic effects (of restricting public movement and access) may be too great.”

While the United States has the most coronavirus cases in the world as of mid-June, “The second most are in Brazil.” Briggs said. “… In Brazil it’s turned into an absolute disaster.”

Sweden “decided to let the politicians decide what to do, and now they have the highest death rate in the world, 10 percent,” he added.

He contrasted that to New Zealand, where public travel and access “was completely run by the public health officials.”

As a result, New Zealand “does not have one single case” of COVID-19 as of mid-June, Briggs added. “They’re back to normal.”