Dubuque County Board of Health members are leaving the county’s mask mandate in place for now.
However, they plan to vote on May 19 on whether to end the mandate — meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 — before its current June 15 sunset.
At a board meeting April 21, members acknowledged the progress the county has made through the COVID-19 pandemic since November, when the mandate that people wear face coverings in public went into effect.
“The situation we have now is completely different than where we were in November or even in February,” said Dr. Hendrik Schultz, a member of the board. “We have vaccinated the majority of vulnerable people we wanted to vaccinate. If you have a good year in flu vaccinations, if you get past 60%, it’s stellar.”
Schultz is an immunologist and chief medical officer for Medical Associates Clinic. During the meeting, he gave a presentation on the existing vaccines against COVID-19, their efficacy and effectiveness and possible side effects.
The board also heard a presentation from Dubuque County Health Department Executive Director Patrice Lambert on COVID-19 activity in the county. Lambert described the county’s positive case trend and hospitalizations decreasing but also showed a report rating transmission in the county as high.
Members also heard from 11 community members during a public comment portion of the meeting. All of them said they opposed the mask mandate and asked that it be rescinded immediately.
“We will get a ton of information about testing, positive numbers and deaths,” said Sageville Mayor Wayne Kenniker, who has opposed the mask mandate in the past. “We will not get the right information to determine whether we have reached the criteria needed to rescind the resolution. End the mask mandate tonight. Change the message to a strong recommendation. Restore some of the trust and faith people should have in the county Board of Health and the health department.”
That call for restoring faith in the health agency was frequently repeated among critics of the mask mandate. Most speakers also stressed their belief in the importance of personal choice when it comes to health decisions.
County Supervisor Harley Pothoff also voiced his support for rescinding the mask mandate.
He noted that when the Board of Health and supervisors last voted to extend the county mask mandate, they set it to expire June 15, when qualified individuals in Phase 1B — including those 65 and older and front-line essential workers — had had a chance to receive a vaccine, or when the mandate was rescinded by the Board of Health.
“I think we should maybe move to a strong recommendation and not the mandate,” Pothoff said. “We’re only as good as our word.”
Schultz pointed out that state officials had since expanded the 1B group to include individuals 16 to 64 with high-risk conditions, which also expanded the number of people who need to be vaccinated to meet the county’s goal.
He said the decision of whether to rescind the mandate would come down to how much severe illness and death that county officials would be comfortable with.
“We will never prevent illness from COVID-19,” Schultz said. “It will be an annual occurrence. We will always have people who die from COVID. What is the level of death, illness and disability that is acceptable for the baseline? I don’t think we are over the hump entirely yet.”
Other members agreed, noting especially that there are still residents 65 and older or with high-risk conditions who have received one dose of a vaccine, but not the second.
Board Member Katie Jones agreed with other members but also sympathized with the opponents of the mandate who spoke.
“I understand the public placed a lot of trust in us,” she said. “I’m really thankful for (those) who hopped on board with us during that surge. I don’t want them to think we’re unappreciative and don’t see the difference they’re making.”
Board Chairman Tom Bechen recommended the board vote on May 19 to give time for more people to receive second doses of the vaccine. That would be less than a month before the current sunset of June 15.
Rescinding the mandate early also would require action by the Board of Supervisors, which would require a two-week public hearing process before the matter could come to a vote.
Supervisor Ann McDonough pointed out that the June 15 sunset was approved in part to align with the end of the year for local schools.
She also reminded the public that an end to the county’s mask mandate would not affect the mandate currently in effect in the city of Dubuque.