Health officials say new law allowing county commissioners to strike down COVID mandates delays prevention efforts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia public health official says a new state law that gives county commissions the ability to strike down mask mandates recommended by local boards of health adds another layer of complexity when working to fight COVID-19.

Bill Kearns

“It takes longer to get those policies enforced,” said Bill Kearns, executive director of the Berkeley-Morgan County Board of Health who also serves as treasurer of the West Virginia Public Health Association.

There have only been two West Virginia counties to separately issue indoor mask mandates in recent weeks. Greenbrier and Mercer county commissioners voted to remove those mandates following heated discussions from many residents who strongly opposed the requirement.

S.B. 12, signed into law earlier this year, allows county commissions to ratify any COVID rules or regulations proposed by county boards of health.

Kearns said their job is to put public health first.

“When they’re looking at issues, it’s directly for public health. It’s not looking at issues as a politically correct thing to do,” he said.

The law is not favored by Kearns. He said it’s rare when health officials have to establish policies.

“Very few times do your boards of health create rules or regulations. Most of it is centered around clean air policies,” he said.

The mandates in Greenbrier and Mercer counties each required masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Local health officials forwarded their recommendation to county commissioners citing spikes in COVID case rates.

The Mercer County Commission voted 2-1 last Friday to do away with the mandate. The health board wanted to continue it for 60 additional days, until Dec. 20.

Roger Topping

Mercer County Health Board administrator Roger Topping told MetroNews Tuesday the health department now must use other means to convince residents to continue wearing masks.

“It’s not as easy as people might think to come up with these ideas and recommendations without people just becoming so defiant,” Topping said.

He said the mandate was working. Mercer County was averaging about 61 new cases a day when the mandate began and by last Wednesday the number of new cases daily had fallen just before 30.

Topping said it’s unfortunate mask mandates have turned political.

“That’s when it really started to hurt everybody,” he said.

Kearns agreed mask mandates can cause tension within the community and at schools.

“We understand people have rights to wear a mask or not,” he said. “Our role is keep children safe in school.”

Topping said mask mandates–which came with the spread of the Delta variant–wouldn’t have been necessary had more residents decided to get vaccinated.

“If people would have just gone out and got their shots, we wouldn’t even been talking about any Delta variant,” he said.

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