ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Partisan politics trample public health in St. Joseph County

Now we know.

After 19 months of watching the politicization of science and public health, we see what — and who — some elected officials are willing to sacrifice to score political points.

On Tuesday, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners vetoed a bill that would have brought $3 million in federal grants for health outreach efforts to minority communities.

The bill accepting the grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously been approved by the St. Joseph County Council. Derek Dieter, a Republican, voted to veto it, as did Republican Commissioner Deb Fleming. Republican Commissioner Andy Kostielney did not support the veto.

The grant would fund eight new community health workers, adding to three current such positions, according to Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz and Cassy White, the health department’s director of health equity, epidemiology and data.

The reason stated for rejecting a grant that would help with such critical issues as lead and blood pressure screenings, not to mention COVID-19 vaccinations and testing?

The fear that accepting the money could obligate the county to follow COVID-19 directives from the CDC.

Dieter, reading from the grant documents at the commissioners meeting, pointed to “red flag” language that would require the county to “comply with existing and/or future directives and guidance from the Secretary regarding control and spread.”

Fleming argued that the health department “should not be locked into pushing the federal CDC recommendations that they change, as far as having your vaccine mandates, your mask mandates.”

Never mind Einterz’ explanation that the county is already obligated to make such reports to the state Department of Health and Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Never mind that Einterz noted that the local health department doesn’t have to be “in lockstep” with the state or CDC in cases where “we feel it’s inappropriate.”

Such details weren’t factors in this vote, which comes a month after the Elkhart County Council voted unanimously to reject the same grant using the same reasoning. One Elkhart council member said he refused to say “that whatever the federal government tells me I have to do I have to do.”

Even if you accept that Commissioners Dieter and Fleming were driven by their concern about federal overreach, they were offered an alternative by their fellow commissioner. The county could repay the grant if it opted not to follow some future CDC guidance, said Kostielney, who allowed that he, too, was concerned about the grant language.

That compromise would have meant eight additional health workers to help address, among other things, the ongoing threat of lead poisoning in children connected to lead-based paint, specifically in older homes located in lower-income neighborhoods. The health issues associated with lead poisoning are well-documented and have been the subject of numerous Tribune articles and editorials in recent ye.

But elected officials sworn to protect the public rejected the option provided by Kostielney. We can only hope that the county council has the votes to override the commissioners’ vote.

Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, president of the health board, said she was “shocked” and “appalled” by the vote.

“Politics has invaded the space of health,” she said. “We’re playing games with the health of our community.”

Indeed, we are. But sadly, after more than a year of watching public officials abdicate their responsibilities in the name of partisan posturing in the midst of a public health crisis, we’re no longer surprised.

Send comments to [email protected].