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News / Northwest

Cowlitz health board talks public trust after COVID-19

Panel passed medical freedom motion in Nov.

By Minka Atkinson, The Daily News
Published: May 10, 2024, 2:59pm

LONGVIEW — The Cowlitz County Board of Health held a discussion Tuesday on regaining public trust in health care that featured presentations by guest speakers Bob Runnels and Sally Saxon, who blamed much of the issue on what they described as harmful anti-COVID measures like mask and vaccine mandates.

Runnells is a board member for Informed Choice Washington, a nonprofit advocating against vaccine mandates of all kinds. Saxon is a former lawyer and co-author of “The COVID-19 Vaccines and Beyond,” which argues that COVID vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary, and that efforts to push them as a preventative measure were part of a larger conspiracy against Americans.

COVID has been an ongoing issue for the Board of Health, even long after most regulations have been lifted around the country. In November, following an extended debate, the board passed a medical freedom resolution saying the county will not require anyone to put something “onto or into” their body without informed consent.

Board members Mary Jane Melink and Alyssa Fine argued Tuesday against the necessity of the presentation, saying the board is focusing too heavily on 2-year-old COVID regulations and not enough on current issues like high rates of fentanyl use or teen pregnancy in the county.

“There are real things that need to be addressed, and we’ve talked about them before,” Fine said. “We have an hour once a month to make a difference in our community. … I don’t think this is the best use of our time.”

According to a 2022 report by the Washington State Department of Health, Cowlitz County had an adolescent pregnancy rate of 12.3 percent in 2020. This was the 10th highest in the state out of the 24 counties where data was available, higher than the state average of 8.1 percent. For the report, “adolescents” were defined as being 15 to 17 years old.

Cowlitz County Coroner Dana Tucker has also reported that overdose deaths in the county are increasing. Deaths related to fentanyl specifically more than doubled between 2022 and 2023.

Plans for state funding

Also in question at the meeting was how the county could use $1.4 million in state-granted Foundational Health Funding, which it automatically receives each year. Although the county does not have to apply to get these funds and using them does not cost the county money, board member and County Commissioner Arne Mortensen said he disapproves of using them on principle.

The board approved a motion, proposed by Melink, for Health and Human Services staff to prepare a draft budget and work plan by the June meeting on how the county would use the funding to address health priorities in the coming year.