Efforts underway to oust Burns as health officer

·3 min read

A concerted effort is underway by those opposed to vaccines, masking and COVID-19 quarantines to encourage the board of Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency not to renew the contract of health officer Rebecca Burns.

The board will consider her new contract and salary at its monthly board meeting Thursday after the Program, Policy and Appeals Committee recommended a new three-year contract with the health officer who hired six years ago.

It urged in the future that the evaluation set for a closed meeting Thursday be conducted earlier instead of immediately prior to the conclusion of the three-year contract, Dec. 31.

Later, the finance committee decided not to recommend any salary increase or merit pay to leave that for the full board to decide Thursday.

Municipal Consulting Services did a survey of comparative pay scales for all employees in 2019. It showed that her salary was 30% less than other health agencies, one of the lowest in the state at $81,607.50.

The 2019 range was at midpoint $99,331 and topped out at $110,368.

Unlike health officers employed by a single county, Burns is employed by all three. Decisions on the employment and pay are made by a six-member board with two commissioners from each county.

Branch County is represented by Jon Houtz and Tom Matthews, Hillsdale by Mark Wiley and Brent Leininger, and St. Joseph by Kathie Pangle and Jared Hoffman.

Commissioners received an email Tuesday.

“I would like to respectfully ask you to vote no and seek out a new Health Officer. As a citizen of St. Joe County and small business owner and parent of school-aged children in Branch County, I have lost faith and confidence in BHSJC Health Department due to the actions of the current health officer in 2020 & 2021," the email read.

The email, provided without a name, indicated it was the fall decision on quarantine for schools which caused the concern. Following state guidelines, Burns issued a quarantine order for students who came into close contact with persons who tested positive for COVID-19.

The email stated “less than 0.75% of kids identified as close contacts ever became sick with COVID. Forced virtual learning and quarantining healthy children have caused academic performance to decline and led to an increase of mental health struggles for our youth.”

Other parents with students in Branch and Hillsdale counties fought against the quarantine orders and continue to file for information about COVID-19, making complaints while attending board and committee hearings.

In mid-September, as students returned to in-class learning, the Community Health Agency issued a mandatory quarantine order for those exposed to COVID-19 in Branch, Hillsdale and St. Joseph counties as COVID-19 broke out in schools. This was based on medical advice and information provided both by the state and CDC.

Parents of student athletes filed suit in Branch County and won an injunction pending a final hearing that allowed those students to continue to attend school and participate in sports.

Reading parents filed a similar suit, but did not receive an injunction. A final hearing was never held on the constitutionality and legality of the orders.

The state legislature put into a budget bill language that if quarantine and mask mandates were in place Oct. 1, all local health agency funding would be withheld or taken back.

The health agency revoked the local order Sept. 30. In a statement to her board, Burns said "the essential local public health programs that our agency does are too important to the communities we serve to put that funding in jeopardy. I continue to believe that people that are exposed to COVID-19 and like any protection against the virus, need to quarantine to protect the greater community."

The board has supported Burns in her decisions.

All three counties have less than 50% vaccination of residents. All continue near the top of new infections and COVID-19 deaths as a percentage of population.


This article originally appeared on The Daily Reporter: Efforts underway to oust Burns as health officer

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