BISMARCK — A committee of North Dakota medical professionals says Gov. Doug Burgum and health officials have left the group out of the decision-making process during the state's COVID-19 response.
Members of the North Dakota Health Council met virtually for a special meeting Friday, Oct. 16, to discuss the role of their committee in the state's handling of the pandemic.
The governor-appointed council of doctors, pharmacists, hospital administrators and health care consumers wields significant authority to guide the Department of Health according to state law, but the group has historically deferred to the executive branch and the Legislature.
As North Dakota's COVID-19 outbreak worsens, the little-known group that usually meets just four times a year has faced calls from Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, and outspoken former health official Dr. Stephen McDonough to exert their power over the department and steer the pandemic response in a different direction. Mathern asked in a letter to the council that the nine members tackle the lack of mask-wearing in North Dakota and the hiring of a new health officer after the last two resigned amid disagreements with Burgum.
Members of the group expressed confusion about what their duties should be and how using their authority could conflict with the state's current power structure around public health policy.
Assistant Attorney General Tara Brandner said the group normally only deals with administrative rules and matters of internal policy. All members agreed with Brandner that the group should avoid putting department employees in the bind of choosing to listen to either the governor or the council.
Council member Darrold Bertsch and several others said the group has been overlooked by officials who could benefit from hearing their perspectives. Bertsch said the council is not providing the "non-politicized and non-polarized" input that it could offer.
Chairman Duane Pool said he contacted the governor's office asking for direction but received little in response. He noted that despite the group's historic lack of involvement in public health policy the members would be willing to step into a more active role.
"We're not afraid of work or we wouldn't have taken the position," Pool said. "It's not a resume filler."
Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke said part of the issue with bringing the council into pandemic decisions is the group's lack of regular meetings. Wilke, who does not have a professional background in health care, said most judgments have to be made quickly to address the ever-changing outbreak, and the council only convenes every few months.
Members of the group also said they were frustrated by the lack of information on COVID-19 provided to them. Several members said they have received no data beyond what the health department reports publicly and criticized the department's reporting of hospital bed capacity. The department recently changed the way it reports hospital capacity to reflect the number of beds staffed by medical professionals rather than the number of licensed beds.
"Personally, for me being on the Health Council, I feel ill-prepared as far as information of what's going on, and I'm finding out more from The Fargo Forum or The Bismarck Tribune of what's going on than actually hearing it from the source," member Genny Dienstmann said.
"I think we should be asking what we can do to be of assistance in this pandemic, but like many of the others, I feel like we've been left out of the loop," Dr. Jim Brosseau said. "I just sort of feel like the state Health Council has been forgotten, and if we do have a role to play, I think it has to be defined or redefined by the governor."
Wilke said he values the council's input and would seek members' consultation in the future. The health officer floated the idea of having a council member sit in Unified Command meetings, where many of the important decisions on pandemic response are made.