‘Thinking Ahead, Always’: State Public Health Chief Is an Old Hand at Handling Crises

Fran Phillips, the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, is retiring after 33 years of government service. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Soon after taking over the Maryland Department of Health in 2018, Robert R. Neall, the agency secretary, took an old colleague to breakfast at the Double T Diner in Annapolis, got down on one knee, and begged her to come work for him.

Now, that colleague, Fran Phillips, is an integral and visible part of the state’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 virus.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) held a news conference Monday morning to update Marylanders on measures he’s taking to blunt the blow of the novel COVID-19 outbreak — a near-daily occurrence in Annapolis during these uncertain times.

Through the series of media events put on since the virus infiltrated the state, the governor has had a rotating cast of government officials at his side, some speaking — and some not — about the impact the virus will have on Marylanders.

The one constant face seen at Hogan’s side is that of  Phillips, the deputy Health secretary for Public Health Services, who time and again has offered updates on symptoms to look for and statistics about tests, beds and the growing diagnoses count.

As Hogan prepared to leave Monday’s news conference to hop on a conference call with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, he turned the podium over to Phillips, who at this point is a natural at navigating press questions.

“First of all, what we’re experiencing here is unprecedented,” she said. “It is a public health emergency, and this is a new virus for which there is, obviously, no vaccine, and there is no medication for treatments.”

Though COVID-19 and all it brings is unprecedented, as Phillips said, this is not her first public health crisis. She is a tenured public health professional, who over the course of her career has largely toggled between the Anne Arundel County Health Department and the state’s Department of Health, taking on diseases like SARS and the H1N1 “swine flu” epidemic.

Phillips, a registered nurse with a master’s in health administration, served for 15 years as the Anne Arundel County health officer starting in the early ‘90s, when Neall was county executive, with a brief stint as the county’s interim fire chief.

Anne Arundel County Department of Health Public Information Officer Elin Jones, who worked with Phillips during her 15-year stint with the county government, called her “the head … and the heart of the department.”

Jones said she was “thinking ahead, always,” describing how Phillips led the county through a number of outbreaks like SARS, the West Nile Virus and the 2004 flu vaccine shortage.

According to a 2005 Anne Arundel County Department of Health Annual Report, the county and the state’s health department immunized over 7,000 high-risk individuals between just two clinics. Jones recalled that masses of people were lined up and down the street to get hard-to-come-by flu shots.

“She had us prepared for anything that would come around the corner,” she said.

Phillips left the county health department in 2008 to serve her first stint as the deputy secretary for Public Health Services under then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) from 2008 to 2013, leading the state through the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.

According to a Maryland Influenza Activity Report compiled by the health department for 2009 to 2010, the state saw 46 reported deaths from H1N1.

Former Anne Arundel County Executive Steven R. Schuh (R) brought her back to the Anne Arundel Health Department during his administration in 2017, appointing her as the county’s acting health officer until she returned to the state agency in 2018.

Schuh, now the executive director of the state’s opioid operational command center, called Phillips “exceptionally accomplished.”

“I can think of no one better to serve as an advisor to the governor in guiding the state through its COVID-19 response,” Schuh said in an email to Maryland Matters.

Phillips returned to the deputy secretary role at the Department of Health in 2018 after the on-his-knees appeal from Neall, who was hunting for someone to fill her position after his own appointment to the department.

“Once I got appointed Health Secretary, I was looking around for some competent help. And she was the acting health secretary in Anne Arundel County once again,” Neall recalled in an interview Sunday.

Neall was looking for a replacement for Dr. Howard Haft as the deputy secretary for Public Health Services in 2018, after Haft was appointed to serve as the executive director for the Department of Health’s Maryland Primary Care Program.

“So, I invited her to breakfast at the Double-T Diner, got down on one knee and begged her to come to work for me. ‘Cause she’s the best.” he said. “She was my health officer when I was county executive, and she is one of the most gifted, experienced and competent public health leaders we have.”

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.