West Virginians have now heard Gov. Jim Justice say time and again that “local control” on public health measures is what’s best for West Virginia schools, municipal and county governments and businesses, when it comes to COVID-19.
For most of the pandemic, now stretching inevitably toward 600 days, Justice wanted to be the only person to have any say. The once-contained virus is again spiraling out of control in West Virginia, courtesy of the delta variant, combined with huge numbers of West Virginians remaining unvaccinated. Justice and his advisers are really the only centralized advocates for the vaccine in the state and, unfortunately, their efforts have largely failed to persuade anti-vaxxers to do the right thing. So, throwing everything to local control has become politically expedient for the governor.
That’s not to say there isn’t an argument for local control. In fact, it sounds very logical. Public school boards and county health departments should know the situation in their region, and how to handle it, better than the state government.
Then again, school board members, city councilors and county commissioners are politicians, too. Because of their hyper-locality, they can face much more intense pressure from their constituents — often people they know in the community — than state officials. Also, many of these locally elected public servants are not infectious-disease or public health experts. That’s not to say the governor is, but he has a team of people whose job is to track everything that is happening with COVID-19 and advise the best course of action, even if the governor stalls, as he’s doing now.
What local officials need to consider is what is best for education or the local economy, while still maintaining public safety and slowing the spread of a virus that is the microbial equivalent of a nationwide wildfire. It’s a hefty chore, even if officials are operating in a vacuum, which they’re not. There’s much more influencing their thinking and upsetting the balance they should be trying to achieve. And who is to say their thinking even starts with that equation? Again, with possibly a few exceptions, most of these folks aren’t epidemiologists by day and school board or city council members by night.
Some will argue that local authorities throwing caution to the wind in regard to public health measures have that right and know what they’re doing. But the pandemic trends don’t bear that out at this time.
In a lot of instances, local control is the way to go. But, when it comes to a pandemic, those local agencies have to make their decisions based on the right variables, not on a crowded room screaming at them.
For now, it seems the only way the situation will improve in areas that aren’t taking necessary precautions is for employers, such as hospitals, to mandate vaccination for workers. That’s the only thing driving up vaccination numbers right now, and, as the governor who suddenly touts local control and his advisers have continued to say, more vaccinated West Virginians is the only way out of this.