Masks now optional in county courthouse

Tuesday, April 27, 2021
The Dickinson County Board of Supervisors cast a split vote on whether to continue requiring the public to wear face coverings while inside the county courthouse. The requirement was lifted on a 3-2 decision Tuesday, making masks optional the supervisors who voted against the change continued to wear their masks for the rest of the meeting. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

A number of county officials removed their masks Tuesday morning following a 3-2 vote to make face coverings optional inside the Dickinson County Courthouse. The Dickinson County Board of Supervisors had tabled the topic last week in order to hear from local health officials before making a decision. Zach Borus, chair of the Dickinson County Board of Health, recommended to the board that the courthouse policy stay in place, but admitted the decision was ultimately up to the supervisors. Board members said a number of county department heads, including Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Ehret, were in favor of lifting the mask requirement.

Dickinson County Public Health Director Katy Burke spoke to the board of supervisors ahead of Tuesday's vote. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Dickinson County Public Health Director Katy Burke told the board Tuesday that the county's rolling, two-week rate of positive COVID-19 tests has shown a downward trend, but she also noted the county's rate had reached approximately double that of many counties in Iowa in recent weeks. She said the Iowa Department of Public Health estimated some 6,000 of Dickinson County's residents or about 35 percent of the county's population have been fully vaccinated at this point. An April 23 report from local health officials attributed about 3,510 of that total to the local public health office, but other area pharmacies have been providing the shots. The local public health office transitioned to walk-in clinics recently, citing a decrease in demand amid increased vaccine supply statewide.

"I do fear that we are reaching a point of saturation," Borus told the board ahead of Tuesday's vote. "That said, there are still folks who are on the fence and who are considering it. There are still folks who have gotten that first dose who are not yet eligible or ready to get the second one. So I would certainly encourage at least a bit longer."

The same April 21 report showed about 7,693 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered by Dickinson County Public Health at that point, and the deaths of 44 Dickinson County residents have been related to the virus.

Borus said the Dickinson County Board of Health is continuing to recommend policies which encourage universal masking when indoors, which he said mirrors guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

"Since early March, when the UK variant was confirmed in our county, spread has increased rapidly, hospitalizing up to six people at a time, including 30 and 40-year-olds," Borus said Monday. "Because this more contagious variant is here, and because numbers are up, and because we do not yet have enough people vaccinated to have brought the positivity rate to a low-risk rating, we recommend ongoing caution in public spaces, including the courthouse."

THE ARGUMENTS

Brad Meyer, a former physician at Lakes Regional Healthcare, and local resident Barbara Clayton spoke in opposition to the county's mask policy during Tuesday's meeting. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Brad Meyer and local resident Barbara Clayton spoke against the county's continued mask policy Tuesday. Meyer, a physician formerly with Lakes Regional Family Medicine, claimed he was terminated approximately four weeks ago for his advice to patients regarding COVID-19. The practice falls under Avera Health but is located in Lakes Regional Healthcare. Both entities said they do not comment on personnel policies LRH officials added that the hospital was not technically Meyer's employer.

Meyer told the board he felt the county was in a position to "lead the charge" in lifting viral mitigation practices, and later told the board that mRNA vaccines such as the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer have "never been used on humans." David Verhoeven, a professor of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine at Iowa State University, said that while the COVID-19 vaccines are the first to advance to their third phase of tests, several mRNA vaccines have in fact been studied in humans two of them being flu vaccines developed by Moderna and tested in 2019 and 2017. He said other such studies, including one examining an mRNA vaccine developed against cancer by company CureVac, goes back to 2015.

Meyer told the board he would rather the public be exposed to COVID-19 in hopes of building more lasting immunity, rather than continue with current mitigation strategies. Borus agreed the human body may develop prolonged immunity to some diseases, but he said local providers have seen individuals who have been reinfected with the virus after three months. The majority of people in Dickinson County who contracted the respiratory virus had it more than three months ago, according to Borus.

THE VOTE

Tuesday's 3-2 decision was met with applause from approximately three members of the audience, and mask use among the board members followed their respective votes shortly after. (Photo by Seth Boyes)

Supervisor Jeff Thee expressed his dismay that the issue of the pandemic has become politicized along party lines, saying many in the public seek information based on their personal preferences.

"If we'd done all this during World War II as a nation, we might all be speaking German today," Thee said. "It bothers me that it has come to this point but personally, I do think it's time we start treating people as grown-ups. They can make personal decisions."

Supervisors Kim Wermersen and Steve Clark echoed Thee's position. Supervisor Tim Fairchild took the opposite stance, expressing his support for the board of health's recommendation. Clark initially suggested the potential policy change take effect in one week's time. Fairchild proposed a month in order to allow time for more individuals to receive their second dose of vaccine and achieve full immunity, or possibly even begin their two-dose regiment.

"I would beg you to at least wait 30 days," Fairchild told his fellow board members. "If you have to rule by herd mentality at this point, please consider giving everybody a chance to get vaccinated before you do it."

Ultimately, Thee motioned for the courthouse mask policy to be lifted immediately, comparing his motion to playing a trump card in order to see what the other players have in their hand. Clark seconded the motion, saying he did not want Thee's motion to die for lack of a second. The vote split Thee, Clark and Wermersen voting in support of it, with Fairchild and Chairman Bill Leupold voting against the change. The decision was met with applause from approximately three members of the audience, and mask use among the board followed their respective votes shortly after.

Later discussion touched on addressing county employees who may no longer feel safe working in the courthouse under the new policy. Wermersen indicated, with state vaccinations available for anyone at least age 16, a large portion of the responsibility now rests on the individual. He indicated the matter would likely be delegated to the appropriate department head if and when it arises.

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