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Omaha City Council to consider adding special position focused on epidemics

Amendment from Mayor Stothert and Councilman Palermo proposes removing public health order powers from county health director
Published: Mar. 14, 2022 at 4:41 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The City Council on Tuesday will begin considering a change in a city ordinance that would create a special epidemic health director and limit the role of the Douglas County health director when dealing with a pandemic in the city.

Mayor Jean Stothert and City Councilman Vinny Palermo are aiming to remove the authority of the Douglas County health director to issue public health orders without approval from the mayor and the council.

When Douglas County Health Director Dr. Lindsay Huse issued a mask mandate for the city in January, she knew she would get some pushback.

“This is not a decision that I made lightly,” she said at the time. “This was not an easy decision at all. And I know it’s going to create some waves.”

She was right; Stothert was among those not happy with the decision to issue a citywide mask mandate.

“I made it very clear that I do not support a mask mandate at this time,” the mayor said then. “I gave all of my reasons why. I have both a text message and an e-mail from Dr. Huse saying she would like to do a mask mandate, but she wouldn’t do it without my support.”

Now the mayor and Palermo have introduced an ordinance that, if approved, would make the Douglas County health director unable to issue a directed health measure for the City of Omaha in case of an epidemic.

“I think it’s an unwise decision right now. We’re letting egos get in the way of science,” said Chris Rodgers, president of the Douglas County Board of Health.

Here’s how it would work: The Douglas County health director would certify the threat of an epidemic in Omaha. At that point, the special epidemic health director would take over and manage the city’s response. If that special health director wanted a DHM, like a mask mandate, the city council would ultimately decide whether to approve it.

6 News reached out to City Council President Pete Festersen, who said he was open to reviewing the approval process but thinks the council should continue to be guided by expertise in infectious disease and public health.

“I’m not supportive of the proposed ordinance as it’s currently written because it takes that away,” he said.

Palermo said he believes epidemic-related health orders will be improved by this ordinance, but Rodgers disagrees.

“Putting this in the hands of elected people makes it more political than it has already gotten over the last two years,” Rodgers said.

Under the current proposal, the special epidemic health director would be a UNMC physician who would consult with experts before developing orders and regulations, but the final decision would still be in the hands of elected officials — something Palermo was against when the City Council enacted the mask ordinance in August 2020.

The first reading of the ordinance is on Tuesday’s City Council agenda. The council doesn’t meet March 22, so the public hearing will happen on March 29, with a vote scheduled April 5.

Read the public health amendment proposal

Digital Director Gina Dvorak contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version indicated an incorrect date for public comment. 6 News regrets the error.

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