Long-simmering battle over public health comes to a head in Ottawa County
- The Ottawa County health department has faced harsh blowback since the COVID pandemic for following pandemic guidelines
- A new slate of county officials took office in January, vowing to rein in the health office
- The outcome of the legal battle is being watched nationally as communities struggle to define health officers’ authority
A political showdown in Michigan's Ottawa County has moved into the national spotlight, after the county’s deeply conservative political leaders instructed the public health officer to cut the county’s contribution to her office’s budget in half.
Late Thursday, Hambley wrote in a follow-up post that the proposed cuts “will almost certainly close the health department within weeks of its implementation,” adding that county leaders are attempting “to achieve political victory over COVID-19 at the expense of Ottawa County citizens.”
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County leaders’ repeated attacks — stemming from the health office’s enforcement of vaccine and safety mandates during the pandemic — has led the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Michigan Association of Local Public Health to enter the legal battle over Hambley’s future. The organizations filed an amicus brief on her behalf.
Hambley has been fighting to keep her job since the new leaders took office in January. Thanks to a court order, she has managed to hold onto the post for now.
Her tenuous grasp on her job is emblematic of the tension and pushback public health officials have faced across much of the county since COVID racked the globe in 2020, said Adriane Casalotti, NACCHO’s chief of government and public affairs.
“We have seen, over the course of the pandemic, health leaders who have been railroaded, removed from their positions (and) scapegoated in the press … and oftentimes, those individuals are metaphorically beat up, sometimes literally threatened,” Casalotti told Bridge Michigan on Thursday.
Often, she said, those public health officials have chosen to “move on” or have been forced out: “In this respect, the health director is standing up and saying ‘No, this isn't this isn't right. This isn't legal.' ”
Jimena Loveluck, health officer at Washtenaw County and head of the state association of health officers, said Hambley’s fight in Ottawa County “is being watched locally and nationally.”
“We want to do everything we can do to support local public health and ensure it remains a vital piece of every county and every jurisdiction in Michigan,” she said.
The legal question
At the heart of the lawsuit are questions that have divided countless U.S. communities since 2020 when COVID prompted public health orders to shut down, stay put, and mask up: How much power should public health officials wield? And should they be better insulated from political pressure?
The battles have turned ugly in many communities, including in Michigan, with personal attacks in crowded school board and government meetings, protests, and threats of personal violence against workers.
Perhaps nowhere in Michigan, though, did it get as nasty as in Ottawa County, where the fight devolved into death threats.
Last November, the backlash over pandemic orders nudged deeply red Ottawa County even further to the right. Eight new commissioners endorsed by the Ottawa Impact coalition — closely aligned with evangelical Christian groups — were elected to the 11-person county board.
Ottawa Impact leaders had protested the health department’s mask and vaccine mandates, slammed county leaders over diversity training for public employees and criticized the health department for posting links to websites promoting abortion and birth control resources.
They vowed to push back against what they saw as government overreach, restore parental power against what the coalition called the “medical tyranny of the Ottawa County Department of Public Health” and protect "the American Family".
On Sunday, the Washington Post detailed local political opposition to the department’s efforts in driving down county pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates. The health department’s sex educator, Heather Alberda, was accused by critics of trying to sexualize children and labeled a pedophile, citing her perceived embrace of the LGBTQ+ community. (Bridge featured Alberda in this 2019 article about rates of sexually-transmitted infections.)
Among the most vocal detractors is Joe Moss, a critic of the Ottawa health department since a fight between the Libertas School, a Christian school his child attended, and the health department. The department temporarily shut down Libertas for repeatedly ignoring pandemic safety protocols and failing to alert parents that teachers had tested positive for COVID. The school sued, arguing that the health orders infringed on the school’s religious liberty.
When the newly elected board took control in January, one of its first orders of business was the appointment of Nathaniel Kelly, a self-proclaimed industrial hygienist with master’s degrees in health from an online college, as the county’s administrative health officer.
Kelly was in the news earlier in the pandemic when made a parody video in which he dressed as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s sign language interpreter during a press conference to announce shutdowns. In the video, he could be seen with makeup, miming gunshots to his head and suggesting those who took vaccine shots could fall ill or die.
At the same meeting, Hambley — an environmental chemist, former fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and long-time local public health worker — was demoted.
Earlier this week, Moss proposed slashing the county’s contributions to the health office from $6.4 million to $2.5 million, “a reduction of over 60%,” Hambley wrote on the health department’s Facebook page Tuesday.
That’s a funding level unseen since the 2009 budget, “which was during the worst economic conditions the United States has experienced since The Great Depression,” she added.
Moss countered in an online response that he is simply trying to regain control of a big-spending agency.
“It is time for Ottawa County to rein in the out-of-control expenditures and augmented influence of the Public Health Department,” Moss wrote on his web page.
County Administrator John Gibbs, a former federal official who was appointed to the top county position in January, then asked Hambley to propose a new budget with “a nearly 50% reduction” in the funds by Thursday, Hambley reported.
Hambley’s fight, she told Bridge Michigan in an interview, is about more than maintaining her own job.
“What is happening here…has the potential to completely undermine the public health code in Michigan, for sure,” she said. If a health officer’s authority “isn't maintained, then I just don't know what that means for public health in Michigan.”
Gutting public health powers through budget cuts could impact the safety of restaurants, pools, campgrounds and wastewater and allow outbreaks of disease long ago forgotten by the general public, she said.
Hambley did not detail what programs she would be forced to cut, but health department spokeswoman Alison Clark told Bridge: “Every program is vulnerable.”
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