Bismarck plastic surgeon and Republican Rep. Rick Becker has applied to serve as North Dakota's next state health officer.
In a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum dated Friday, the District 7 House representative laid out his qualifications for the role and unveiled a 10-point plan for addressing COVID-19.
Becker, who runs a plastic surgery center in Bismarck and has served in the state Legislature since 2013, is a graduate of the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. While in medical school, he took courses in immunology and medical statistics and trained in general surgery, Becker wrote.
The 10-point plan, which he calls #FreedomNotFearND, would be a major shift from the state's moves to address COVID-19 so far. Its aim is to avoid overwhelming the state's health system, Becker wrote, and calls for the elimination of mass testing, contact tracing, coronavirus guidelines for businesses and marketing campaigns for masking and social distancing, among other points.
The mission of slowing and stopping the disease must be abandoned, Becker wrote, as "attempting to control a globally-present virus is both naive and misguided."
His rationale for eliminating marketing and education campaigns is that it's a waste of money.
"The people already know the Department of Health believes wearing a mask and social distancing is a good idea. Spending another $1.8 million on this is not an optimal use of taxpayer money," he wrote.
In regards to education, Becker would allow K-12 students to be back in school full-time, five days a week, with optional masking, plastic partitions for teachers and livestreamed classes for students whose parents choose to keep them home. Parents would be allowed to educate their kids via homeschool-style pods and co-ops, with the rationale being that it's "always a good mantra" to allow parents the choice.
Mandatory masking and mass testing for higher education would be eliminated and classes would also be livestreamed, with the rationale being that it's impossible to contain the virus among a highly mobile and congregatory age group that "rarely falls ill."
The elderly population with underlying conditions, which have been the most common group to become severely ill or die due to COVID-19, and those that visit them in long-term care facilities would be encouraged to wear masks, and facilities and residents could individually decide what COVID-19 safeguards to implement.
"Some will argue that it is better to live six months with the joy of being with loved ones, than to live two years in safeguarded, but lonely isolation. Let’s allow the elderly to decide," Becker wrote.
Members of the Legislature cannot simultaneously hold executive branch Cabinet positions, so Becker would have to resign his seat to serve as state health officer.
Becker told the Tribune Sunday he would be willing to resign from his seat in the Legislature if he were offered the role, but "an offering would necessitate agreeing with the 10-point plan I have."
Becker said he thinks it's unlikely that Burgum would change course and offer him the job, but "just because it's unlikely doesn't mean you shouldn't try."
Burgum's spokesman did not respond to a request for comment this weekend on whether the governor was considering Becker for the role.
The application letter and plan, which was posted to the "Rick Becker For North Dakota" Facebook page, was sent after it became known that Interim State Health Officer Dr. Paul Mariani had abruptly resigned after a quarantine order for close contacts was rescinded one day after it was announced.
The quarantine order, which included a potential Class B misdemeanor for close contacts to coronavirus cases who failed to quarantine for 14 days, triggered widespread public outcry and prompted Republican legislative leaders to ask the governor to remove the legal penalty.
Mariani is the third North Dakota State Health Officer to resign amid the coronavirus pandemic, following Mylynn Tufte and Dr. Andrew Stahl, but his tenure was by far the shortest at 12 days. He in a statement said it was due to the "untenable" circumstances surrounding the handling of quarantine order for close contacts.
Becker's plan says no criminal penalties would be imposed for violating Department of Health orders other than for people who were determined to be intentionally harming others, "because we aren't China."
Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com
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