Does Omaha need a special epidemic director?

Omaha councilman says adding the position would save lives; board of health president says it threatens public health
Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 7:03 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The city’s proposal to shift emergency pandemic powers to someone other than the Douglas County health director still has some scratching their heads.

6 News asked Councilman Vinny Palermo why he’s pushing for the measure.

“The position of Douglas County Health Director has not had the courage and were afraid to make the decision without elected officials helping with that decision-making process,” the 4th District councilman said in a sit-down interview this week.

Palermo said his proposal to make the Omaha Fire Department’s medical director the city’s lead pandemic decision-maker is based on the actions of two people during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.

“One that didn’t act and one who failed to act in a timely manner,” he said.

Palermo said Dr. Adi Pour, health director for the county when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, didn’t take the lead on creating a mask mandate. In his opinion, that resulted in area hospitals getting pushed to capacity. He also claims Dr. Lindsday Huse, who took over the post after Dr. Pour retired in June, refused to enact a mask mandate until she had council support — a decision he claims cost lives.

Douglas County Board of Health President Chris Rodgers took exception to Palermo’s characterizations of the health directors.

“It’s very beneath him to say that those women lacked courage to make the decision,” he said. “We had to assign Sheriff’s to protect them for their day-to-day work.”

Rodgers told 6 News he’s disappointed in Palermo’s actions, saying Dr. Huse’s decision to consult council before enacting the mandate is what any medical leader would do before pulling the trigger on a major decision — one that’s put her in the crosshairs of a lawsuit with the State of Nebraska.

The mask mandate decision, Rodgers added, was also the result of extensive research and collaboration with local doctors, even though local health experts told 6 News earlier this week that it’s a bad decision that could cost lives.

But Palermo held firm to his assessment that the decision directly impacted COVID-19 hospitalizations around the Omaha-metro.

“Our nurses are overworked and this is because a decision could not be made by those that want the power to make the decision,” he said.

Palermo said his plan to add a city epidemic director installs a quick and direct process to prevent that, despite adding restrictions to the process that don’t currently exist.

In his plan, Dr. Huse would still be in charge of making the initial decision that Douglas County is in a health crisis, but the city’s special epidemic director would be required to consult with top doctors and then submit a recommendation to the mayor, which would then go to City Council for a vote.

But Rodgers said that the councilman’s plan actually allows for further public harm by extending the process currently in use — and ensures the decisions are political.

“Everything he’s saying he’s contradicting,” he said. “It’s being done already. He’s creating more loops. He’s making it more political. This is not the solution. This is bigger now. Now he’s threatening public health.”

The topic is set for public comment at the next City Council meeting, slated for 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 29.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated an incorrect date for the next City Council meeting. 6 News regrets the error.

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