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State Health Department proposes rule change for emergencies

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Through Feb. 2, the Alabama Department of Public Health is accepting public comment on a proposed rule change that would reduce the ability of the agency to declare public health emergencies, something some lawmakers have been trying to impose since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under current law, ADPH alone may declare a public health emergency for up to 120 days, after which any extension requires approval from the governor. During the most recent meeting of the ADPH board in December, however, members unanimously voted to recommend changing its rules to require the governor’s approval for declaring public health emergencies on day one.

“This is a rule that would make our statewide emergency orders like we had (during) COVID (to) require a signature from the governor before they take effect,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris during the meeting. “It would prevent the State Health Department from issuing these orders without the governor’s agreement.”

The ADPH issued several public health emergency declarations throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, all with support of Gov. Kay Ivey. What the rule change would accomplish, Harris explained, would be addressing lawmakers’ concerns about potential scenarios where the ADPH and elected officials differed as to whether a public health emergency should be declared or not.

“I think the concern is that in the future, you could perhaps have a health department that issues these orders even if the governor or the Legislature wasn’t supportive of that, so we think it probably makes sense just to codify that into rule,” he explained. 

“Our recommendation would be — based on what we’re hearing from legislators and others — that we adopt this rule, and it helps answer the question about the authority of the health department and who’s actually in charge.”

Since 2020, several bills have been introduced to require governor approval for the ADPH to declare a public health emergency; one in 2020 by former Sen. Tom Whatley of Auburn, another in 2022 from Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and another in 2023 from Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville. 

None of those bills’ sponsors were critical of Harris or the ADPH, and rather argued that requiring an elected official to co-sign a public health emergency declaration simply added a measure of accountability.

On the ADPH’s decision to recommend the rule change, Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, the chair of the House Health Committee, told Alabama Daily News Wednesday that it was “a perfect call.”

“This has been a topic of conversation for some time, and my stance has always been that the public health commissioner should be chosen by professionals and be a professional, unbiased position; however, once it gets to the point of shutting anything down, that should be the governor’s call,” Lee said.

The state health officer for decades has been selected by the State Committee of Public Health. That committee, by state law, is largely made up of leadership of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the professional association of physicians.

“I compare this position to somewhat like the generals that provide the information to the president; you have professionals that are giving information to the president to make the call of whether we go to war or not. That’s the way I think we should use the position of the public health commissioner: as a conduit to gather all the information without any political bias.”

Rep. Susan DuBose, R-Hoover, who also sits on the Health Committee, agreed with Lee in that any decision that could potentially shut down businesses would be best left to elected officials, and thanked Harris for his support of the rule change.

“We learned during COVID that it is important to have elected officials such as the governor (be) accountable to the people of Alabama to make this vital decision,” DuBose told ADN Wednesday. “An unelected bureaucrat should not be making this call which affects the life and livelihood of Alabamians.”

Those wishing to provide public comment on the proposed rule change may contact the ADPH General Council by clicking here. The proposed rule change will be further discussed by ADPH during its next public hearing on Jan. 17.

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