Updated September 22, 2021 - 10:01 am
A majority of the Clark County Commission took a formal stand Tuesday against COVID-19 misinformation, declaring it a public health crisis amid concerns from other lawmakers that doing so might agitate a deep division within Southern Nevada.
The 5-2 vote made the county one of few jurisdictions in the U.S. to label falsehoods related to COVID-19 — often rooted in an extreme mistrust of the government — a crisis that has prolonged the pandemic by undermining efforts to combat spread of the disease.
“It’s important for our governing board to declare health misinformation as a public health crisis and commit to doing all we can to combat the falsehoods that continue to jeopardize the lives of our citizens,” Commissioner Justin Jones, who proposed the resolution, said in a statement immediately following the vote.
But Commissioners Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Jim Gibson rejected the measure, saying it had the potential to further drive a wedge between divergent sides and give the impression that it was tantamount to clamping down on dissent.
“This is just ammunition that suggests now we’re gonna try to control speech which no one intends to do,” Gibson said.
Chairwoman rejects statement
Kirkpatrick, a leading figure in the state in the fight against the virus who has pushed public health measures and vaccinations, chose not to support the resolution even as U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has warned Americans that health misinformation has threatened the nation’s response to the pandemic.
“There is misinformation on all sides out there,” she said.
As an example, she pointed to someone who provides wrong information about whether the Southern Nevada Health District is open for a vaccine or test.
Acknowledging that she was considering whether to support the resolution in real time as she addressed it, Kirkpatrick — who also said she has been “threatened more times than not” — concluded that she did not want to silence any voice nor divide the community any further.
“We are so awful as a community now just talking to folks,” she said, lamenting a collapse of civil agree-to-disagree discourse that she noted was unrecognizable from the Nevada in which she grew up. “But now we’re just angry on both sides. We’re angry all the way around.”
County legal counsel Mary-Anne Miller said the resolution is essentially a statement by the county and it does not criminalize free speech, meaning there is no punishment for anyone who holds and exercises different views.
San Diego County became the first government in the country to pass such a resolution late last month.
Health district on board
While more than 1.1 million people have been fully vaccinated in the county, the figure represents only about 57 percent of the eligible population 12 and older.
Dr. Fermin Leguen, health officer for the health district, said in a statement Tuesday that he supported the county resolution, calling misinformation a source of vaccine hesitancy that has increased demand for unproven and unsafe treatments.
“While it is essential for public agencies to provide a forum for people to comment and give input on issues that impact them, it is critical that information impacting the health and safety of the public be based on proven science and accurate data,” he said.
Big pushback against declaration
During a public comment period at the onset of Tuesday’s meeting, critics of the resolution accused county officials of pushing a single narrative about the pandemic and questioned how they planned to establish the barometer for fact.
“I just find it incredible that we’re actually considering that the government should be the one arbiter of the truth,” said Ed Uehling, a frequent participant in government meetings.
Critics feared their ability to express their opinion would be threatened as they castigated the government for being heavy- handed with face mask and other health mandates and, contrary to public health experts, insisted that vaccines were unsafe.
Often the public comment period was laden with conspiracy theories: There was talk of new world orders, a “plandemic” and Dr. Anthony Fauci funding and creating COVID-19 to kill people. One woman said the vaccine was the predecessor to a “mark of the beast shot.”
A man wearing a “Jeffrey Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself” shirt questioned whether people signed up for communism through secret applications on their cellphones and hidden contracts with China.
Miller escorted out by security
Video emerged on Twitter on Tuesday of Mack Miller, a former Las Vegas mayoral candidate who says he is running for lieutenant governor in 2022, being rushed backward by two security officers in the lobby outside commission chambers.
Miller is pushed through a weapons detector, which nearly comes crashing down, according to the video posted by Twitter user Americanka4, and Miller is seen lying on his back in apparent pain.
A second video posted by the same user, preceding the altercation and that appears to have been shot on cellphone by Miller, shows him inside commission chambers telling security “now don’t get rough” as he narrates that the meeting had been shut down and attendees were getting kicked out.
A raucous crowd can be heard yelling “freedom of speech!”
After Miller seeks a name and a badge number from at least one security officer, Miller claims he was shoved and becomes belligerent: “There’s no way you’re going to stop me from protecting these people’s (expletive) rights!” he yells as he is forcefully led outside into the lobby.
County spokesman Erik Pappa said Tuesday that the incident was under review.
The commission handles other business before addressing its core agenda each session and the incident with Miller occurred between meetings, Pappa said.
He said a group of attendees became disruptive after security officers asked one person to put on his face mask, requiring officers to clear the room.
Miller did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the incident.