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County commissioners vote to censure Mercatante over school mask order

Photo courtesy of Jim Bloch. A screenshot of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners, Jan. 20.

By Jim Bloch

With the omicron variant of the coronavirus surging in St. Clair County, the board of commissioners voted to proceed with censuring Dr. Annette Mercatante, the county’s public health, and medical officer, for her mask mandate in K-12 schools, which lasts through Jan. 28.

The board voted 6-0 on Jan. 20 to order county administrator Karrie Hepting to draft a letter censuring Mercatante; board chair Jeff Bohm was absent.

The board intends to review Hepting’s letter on Feb. 3. Pending changes and approval, the letter will formalize the board’s displeasure with Mercatante’s rollout of the mandate and be placed in her employment file.

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Because of the large crowds at recent meetings, the board changed its meeting site from the county building to the convention center.

COVID-19 in the county

For the week ending Jan. 21, there were 2,101 new cases of COVID-19 in St. Clair County, a 300 per day average, according to the health department’s website. That brought the total number of cases in the county since the start of the pandemic to 36,753; 23,105 people have recovered. There were 25 deaths during the week, bringing the total number of deaths to741.

Test positivity stood at 37.4 percent. According to the World Health Organization, test positivity above five percent suggests that the transmission rate of the virus is too high to begin removing standard protective measures, such as masking and social distancing.

The best defense against getting and transmitting the virus is vaccines, but vaccinations have lagged in St. Clair County. Only 55.3 percent of county residents have received one shot of the vaccine.

The county trails the state as a whole. In Michigan, 65 percent of the population had received a first dose of the vaccine; 58 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Michigan lags behind the nation, which is 63.6 percent fully vaccinated.

“In December 2021, the monthly rate of COVID-associated hospitalizations was 16 times higher than in unvaccinated adults who are 18+ (compared to those in the same age group who are fully vaccinated,” said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in a Jan. 25 Tweet.

Mercatante’s mask order appears to have worked.

“With implementation of universal masking in St. Clair County schools, daily cases among school-age individuals was less than half the predicted rate,” according to department figures. The expected number of cases per day in January was 85. The actual number of cases was 35 per day. “Since masking order instituted on January 3rd, 2022, all schools within the county have stayed open for in-person learning.”

Children may experience far fewer hospitalizations and deaths from COVID, but they can transmit the virus to their elders.

Public comment

The decision to censure Mercatante came after two hours of public comment dominated by residents opposed to the mask mandate.

“This is a minimal virus,” said a Port Huron woman, as heard on the recording of the board meeting posted on YouTube.

She called on the board to remove Mercatante from the office.

“She’s going off what other people think,” said another woman, complaining that Mercatante cited the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in making her decisions. “Where is the peer review data? Where’s the science, the actual science? I know for a fact the CDC, they flip-flop every other day. We all know that. Where’s the proof?”

A man asked the board to encourage school districts to grant religious exemptions to mask-wearing.

Two students from Algonac spoke against masking. “We cannot learn in a fearful environment,” one said.

“Statistically, children have a 100 percent survivability rate against COVID,” 

 said a Marysville mom. So why are children being singled out for masking? Follow the federal money flowing through health departments and schools to understand the mandates, she said.

‘Communication’ is issue

The first of 24 new items of business on the county board’s agenda was a report from the three-member committee, formed Jan. 6, to review the public health official and medical director positions.

The board told Mercatante that she was not welcome at the meeting.

The committee consists of commissioners Lisa Beedon, the board’s only Democrat, Dave Rushing, and Dave Vandenbossche.

Rushing and Beedon said the committee reviewed Mercatante’s contract and came up with four options:1) Maintain the status quo and not do anything; 2) Divide Mercatante’s job into two jobs, public health official and medical director, and hire two people to fill them, as is typical of other departments of health around the state; Beedon said the positions were combined ten or so years ago, before Mercatante was hired, to save money; 3) The county could fold itself into the jurisdiction of another health department, such as Macomb’s; 3) The board could authorize Hepting to draft a letter censuring Mercatante.

“I view this as a communication issue,” said Beedon. “That, to me, is an employee-employer problem.”

Beedon said the committee discussed putting a communication plan in effect for all department heads to avoid holding one department head to a stricter standard than his or her counterparts. In the end, the board members appeared ready to develop a plan of communication for the two-county department directors with the ability to issue public mandates, the public health director and the emergency manager.

“We’ve gotten very little to no negative comments about the doctor’s running the department until we got into the health orders,” said Vandenbossche. “The has caused 99 percent of the issues with that department. I’m a true believer in progressive discipline and we haven’t disciplined her.”

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” Rushing said. “This happened during the quarantine… She needs to tell me what she’s going to do. She did not do that.”

Rushing said Mercatante advised board chair, Jeff Bohm, about the mask order, and Bohm, emailed the board “about an hour before it went into effect.”

The health department sent a press release announcing the masking mandate in schools on Dec. 29; the month-long policy went into effect on Jan. 3.

On Jan. 25, Mercatante said the masking policy would expire on Jan. 28.

“COVID-19 case counts in the schools have leveled out in such a way that they are manageable by the schools,” said the health department’s press release. “Absences in the schools are down and the schools have been able to maintain the staffing levels sufficient to operate.”

Rushing said he wanted masking mandates left up to school boards.

“I think we need to start preparing ourselves to post this position,” said Commissioner Greg McConnell to applause and cries of support from the audience. “I think it’s going to be a hard thing to fill.”

Mercatante’s contract is up in June. 

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com. 

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