Angry Up North: Scars linger after Michigan school mask mandates end

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A day before Tuesday’s meeting, Peacock was in his office at the Charlevoix health department.

On a table in the office was a faded red album. There was dust on the binding and yellowed newspaper clippings inside.

The news clippings chronicle the accomplishments of the four county health department over the past 90 years. There were black and white photos of health checkups at local high schools and polio vaccination clinics in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, the department operates clinics in five area communities, offering dozens of services ranging from septic installation permits to dental exams.

None of this was terribly controversial until COVID-19.

Two years ago, when the pandemic first hit, all Michigan students were required to wear face masks while in school buildings, per a state order issued by the Department of Michigan Health and Human Services. But this school year, the Whitmer administration left the masking policy to local health departments and school districts. It imposed accountability — and a target — on public health officials like Peacock and his colleagues across the state.

Peacock wasn’t alone in issuing school mask mandates last September, at the height of the delta variant. Nearly two out of three public school students (about 900,000 students) have been required to wear a mask under orders from local health authorities. These orders are largely aligned with state and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. There was also broad legal consensus that school mask mandates were within the bounds of a health department’s discretion as the highly contagious infection spread.

Now, as the omicron variant fades, county-level mask mandates are gone, though a handful of individual school districts continue to require masking.

Many health officials who issued these warrants have been harassed. The director of the Kent County Health Department was almost got off the road. Genesee County woman faces criminal charges over allegations she made death threats against health worker Pamela Hackert. A resident attempted to have a citizen arrest the Barry-Eaton Health Department health worker during a town hall meeting, where another resident called the female health worker a vulgar four-letter insult.

Shortly after the Northwestern Michigan school mask mandate was released, Peacock’s cell phone was posted on social media and things got “scary,” she said. A caller, according to Peacock, left a message saying she would “burn in hell” for demanding students wear masks. A police officer came to her home on Thanksgiving Day, after a resident went to the police department to file a citizen’s arrest against her.

“I love my job. I love public health,” Peacock told Bridge Michigan. “But I’m human. I have a heart. These things hurt.

Peacock has been a nurse since 1991, working first in a hospital and later as a school nurse. She opened one of the first school-based health care centers in Northern Michigan before joining the Northwest Michigan Health Department. She has held her current position since 2017, avoiding controversy, before the pandemic.

After the September board meeting, Peacock took two weeks’ sick leave, saying her nerves had been shot by the vitriol directed at her by upset residents.

She wrote a guest comment in Bridge Michigan in October, denouncing health board members who were trying to fire her. (Council counsel had informed the members that they had no legal authority to overturn the mask order, but they could fire Peacock and appoint someone to drop him.)

“In my role as a health care worker, I have a legal duty to issue the prescriptions that my judgment and conscience dictate, based on reputable science and facts,” Peacock wrote in the commentary. “The purpose of my latest order is to protect the health of children and school staff, and the community as a whole, and in my opinion it is supported by overwhelming and reliable medical evidence.

“I’m not asking to be popular, respected or that people agree with this order. Everyone is free to express their opinions and advocate for change. It can – and should – be done in a decent, honorable and persuasive way. Yet what I have witnessed recently is neither decent, nor honorable, nor even convincing.

Some board members tried to fire Peacock in September and again in December, in meetings that were always tense and crowded. Both attempts failed.

Peacock said she had come to terms with board members from the various counties in her area before the mask mandate was issued, and she expected things to return to normal after the mandate ended last month. .

But when she saw that a draft agenda for the March meeting included proposed votes that would have cut the health department’s budget by 10% (and her salary by 30%), Peacock said that She realized things weren’t going to get better.

She submitted her resignation on February 22, citing a “hostile work environment”.

The board accepted his resignation at the March 1 meeting, by a vote of 5 to 3. Half the audience cheered as the vote was announced.

“They don’t even know me,” Peacock told Bridge Michigan afterwards. “How can they hate me so much?”

“I don’t trust them”

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