Berrien County hires interim health officer

Published 2:16 pm Thursday, November 4, 2021

ST. JOSEPH – COVID and health department concerns again took center stage at Thursday morning’s Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting. Residents questioned health department and school actions related to the pandemic, and Commissioners voted against a contract between the health department and Berrien RESA.

Also Thursday, Commissioners approved hiring a new interim Berrien County Health Officer. Courtney Davis had been the interim health officer after former health officer Nikki Britten resigned to take a position with Spectrum Lakeland Health. Davis’ last day was Wednesday. She cited the politicization of public health as one reason for her resignation.

The new interim health officer is Guy Miller. Miller is the epidemiologist with the health department. His appointment is contingent on approval from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan State Health Director.

Miller’s salary will be $94,894. The agreement between the county and Miller states that he will be able to return to his previous duties as an epidemiologist when a permanent county health officer is appointed.

County Administrator Brian Dissette reported last week that he will be coming back to the county board in the coming weeks with a proposal to engage an outside firm to find a pool of candidates for the permanent post.

The main COVID-related topic discussed Thursday was a proposed contract between the county health department and Berrien RESA to provide support for school-based health resource coordination related to the pandemic. The matter had been tabled from last week when commissioners raised questions.

The proposed contract called for the county to use funds from a state grant for “emerging health threats” to pay for the costs of the health department’s work with RESA and area schools. For RESA, the partnership with the health department would help them with parent-approved COVID testing to help them keep students in school.

The proposal was not popular with either residents or a majority of commissioners. A vote to execute the agreement between RESA and the health department failed on an 8-4 vote. Those voting to approve the agreement were Rayonte Bell, Robert Harrison, Michael Majerek and Don Meeks.

Opposed were County Board Chairman Mac Elliott and commissioners Jim Curran, Teri Freehling, Jon Hinkelman, Ezra Scott, Dave Vollrath, Julie Wuerfel and Mamie Yarbrough. A motion by Scott to table the matter for another week was withdrawn when several commissioners said they would not be changing their minds on it.

Elliott said he had questions about the contact tracing and quarantining aspects of the agreement. He noted that the quarantine rules and guidelines appear to change county to county, pointing out that Edwardsburg schools in Cass County are doing things differently than Berrien County schools.

“Is there a quarantine timeline in terms of days that are being passed down from the CDC to the MDHHS and then to the county?” he asked. “If so, is that in any way compelling schools to mask children to reduce quarantine guidelines?”

“Is the CDC a driver in the process through its guidelines that are somehow mutating as they go through the state?” he asked. “Is it creating a backdoor mask mandate in the process? We would like to know if that’s what’s happening. If it is, I don’t want to be part of it.”

Bell asked whether not proceeding with the contract would jeopardize other “emerging health threats” funding from the state for the Benton Harbor lead pipe situation. Dissette said no, that the county would simply not be drawing down those funds from the state and that the state could directly contract with RESA.

A number of commissioners said they don’t think the county should not be involved in parental affairs.

“We have no right to get involved in the medical decisions of parents, it’s not the board’s responsibility,” Scott said.

Freehling questioned the need for this new push at a time when COVID positive numbers are going down and vaccines have been approved for children ages 5-11.

“As a parent, it’s my duty to go out and get my child tested if they’ve been in close contact with someone,” she said.

Majerek had a different view. He said that he changed his mind on the resolution after talking to a local school principal who told him they had 300 students in quarantine and that “every day is chaos and a madhouse.” He also said that new language in the resolution requiring parental approval for testing eased his mind.

Also Thursday, commissioners heard a presentation on the 2022 county budget from Financial Services Director Doug James. That presentation is available on the county’s website. The county board will vote on the budget later this year.

In action, commissioners authorized negotiating a contract with Motorola for the purchase of new radios as well as building a new communications tower near Buchanan. Dissette said the action allows the county to lock in pricing and discounts for the tower. The project will cost $7.8 million and will be paid for in part with a $5 million state grant.