TRAVERSE CITY — The medical director for the Grand Traverse County Health Department contends county commissioners “crossed the line from illogical to irresponsible” when they passed a resolution that curbs messaging public health officials distribute in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s important for the health department to be free to advise and opine on important matters,” said Dr. Michael Collins, who has been with the GTCHD since 1993. “Advising, educating and offering opinions are an important part of the health department’s functions.”
County commissioners voted to enact the Vaccine Awareness and Medical Autonomy resolution on Aug. 18. It bans the county from mandating a COVID-19 vaccine or proof of a negative COVID test for its employees.
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Collins penned an opinion column in response to the resolution that appears on page 3A of today’s Record-Eagle.
In addition to the mandate bans, the resolution alters messaging distributed by the Grand Traverse Health Department, which must now include information that encourages people to talk to their health care provider about the risks and benefits associated with the vaccine.
The resolution also says the county will not encourage employers in the county to establish mandates that hinder medical autonomy, such as vaccines and testing.
The resolution essentially gags the department, not only from making recommendations designed to keep the public safe, but also from promoting the vaccine or expressing an opinion, Collins said.
“It fairly nakedly says that we shall not encourage other employers from adopting measures that would hinder the spread of the virus,” Collins said.
Collins, who is 78, said he is not afraid of repercussions from the county for speaking out against the resolution as he is a contracted employee with the health department. If he is let go he can live with that, he said.
“Integrity is more important than that,” he said.
Commission Chair Rob Hentschel said he hasn’t discussed the resolution with Collins, though acknowledged the medical director’s First Amendment rights to criticize those who are essentially his bosses.
Hentschel also said he thought Collins made assumptions about what is in the resolution and what is not.
“The resolution is about medical autonomy and it sounds like the contracted medical director doesn’t believe in medical autonomy, apparently, I don’t know, I haven’t talked to him about what his views are,” Hentschel said.
The resolution isn’t anti-vaccine, but rather pro-individual liberties, Hentschel said, adding he thought the health department was “preaching this message” about vaccines, while not enough conversations were being had about possible side effects.
“People are terrified because COVID has become a cult — and you can quote me,” Hentschel said. “People are treating masks and vaccines – it’s this cultish following that has become a religion to some people where they’re going to blast their neighbor if they don’t do it the way they do. That’s just not America.”
The resolution was not prompted by any county action that would have mandated vaccines. County Administrator Nate Alger has said employees are being counted on to use their own judgement when it comes to vaccines, testing or quarantining when infected with the virus.
The resolution and Collins’ rebuke comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations across the Munson Healthcare system, mostly driven by the highly-contagious Delta variant, reached 44 Thursday, with 27 of them at the Traverse City medical center.
In all there have been 45,053 COVID cases in northern Michigan and 871 deaths, according to information at the Munson tracker.
Hentschel said he hoped passing the resolution would enable and encourage people to do their own research, consider their own situation and what was best for their own health.
The resolution passed on a vote of 5-1 after more than two hours of public input — much of it from those who support it. Commissioner Betsy Coffia voted against, saying no one on the board has the expertise or education to manage a public health crisis.
“He’s right,” Coffia said of Collins’ stand against the resolution, adding “Hell yes I am, and you can quote me on that,” when asked whether she is standing by her “no” vote.
The resolution was approved despite a letter from Munson Healthcare officials to commissioners stating the hospital does not support the resolution.
“Munson Healthcare believes that it is critical to continue to address this pandemic and any other health crisis with science and the best epidemiologic practices available,” the letter states, which includes the consistent message that vaccines are one of the most powerful tools available to fight the pandemic.
Vaccines stop the spread of the disease and decrease the chance the virus will mutate even more than it already has, the letter stated.
It was signed by Dr. Christine Nefcy, Munson’s chief medical officer; Dr. Christopher Ledtke, infectious disease specialist; and Dr. Jim Whelan, medical director.
Collins said the health department is adopting a policy of silence on the issue while still doing great work in vaccinating people, testing and contact tracing.
“But we’re going to be essentially quiet as far as public opinion and doing anything that would seem to violate that resolution,” he said.
This story has been corrected to say the county will not encourage area employers to establish mandates that hinder medical autonomy, such as vaccines and testing.