GARDNER — No one spoke at a public hearing on Mercer County’s mask mandate Monday afternoon as the mandate is set to expire on Friday unless extended by the board of health and then approved by the county commission.
The board of health approved the 30-day mandate on Sept. 22 as new COVID cases and hospitalizations were rising at a level taxing the county’s health care system.
A public hearing on the mandate was required because county commissioners must approve of new board actions and have 30 days to do so.
Stacey Hicks, President and CEO of Princeton Rescue Squad and a board of health member, opened the public hearing, held at the Forest Products Gardner Center off I-77 Exit 14.
Mercer County Health Department Administrator Roger Topping then asked three times if anyone wanted to speak for or against the mask mandate, but the meeting room at the center was virtually empty and no one spoke.
Hicks was the only board of health member present and all three county commissioners were on hand to listen to any comments.
“What it (lack of speakers) tells me is that, hopefully, the message it is sending is the community believes in the decisions the county board of health make,” Hicks said after adjournment. “Normally, people only come out against stuff, they rarely come out for … To me, it speaks a lot that there is nobody so upset about the mandate they felt like there was a need for them to come out today and protest.”
Hicks said he was the one who made the motion for the mandate last month after he had looked at Princeton Community Hospital.
“We had 47 COVID patients in the hospital at that time,” he said. “That was part of what my decision was in asking for a recommendation to the county commission that we put a mandate in. Today, as we are sitting here right now, we have 20 people in PCH with COVID.”
That number is less than half of what it was before the mask mandate, he said. “I believe it was the direct result of people putting masks back on.”
“I don’t like a mask any more than anyone else,” he said. “But I believe it is necessary for right now.”
Hicks said when hospitals reach capacity it has serious implications.
The rescue squad recently had to transport a woman who needed a heart cath to Beckley because PCH had no beds to put her in.
“We have to take a lady having an active heart attack to Beckley to get a stint put in her heart,” he said. “That is a direct result of COVID (overwhelming hospital capacity).”
The board of health is made up of health care professionals, “and we know what is going on in the community,” he said. “The rescue squad is on the front line of what is going on. We know how bad it is out there.”
Hicks said if the board would allow a situation to continue where patients who need immediate hospitalization and treatment need to be transported 40 miles away then “we are not doing our job … If we are not strong enough to do our job, we should not be on the board of health.”
Hicks said the mask mandate will be discussed at the board of health meeting Wednesday and the board will decide what recommendation they want to send to the county commissioners.
“Ultimately, it is the county commission’s decision,” he said of the new procedures in place that by state law gives commissions oversight of boards of health decisions around the state. “Whatever decision we make the county commission can overrule that.”
But, he said, if the board of health decides Wednesday not to recommend extending the mandate beyond Oct. 22 the county commission would then need to do nothing and just allow the mandate to expire.
Topping said he recommended the mask mandate last month because of the drastic increase in new cases, from an average of 30 a day in August to 61 each day in September.
But that number dropped back to 30 a day in the first 12 days of October.
From Oct. 11 through Oct. 17, that number had fallen even further, to 25 a day.
“I have to attribute that to the mask mandate,” he said. “The board of health saw fit to take this action to protect the citizens of Mercer County. That (the new statistics) goes to show you how much it is working.”
The board of health meeting is at noon Wednesday at the health department.
Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org