Public Health Chief Retiring in Midst of Pandemic; Hogan Tightens Rules on Masks

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

Fran Phillips, state government’s top public health officer, who has helped lead Maryland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, announced Wednesday that she is retiring.

In her 33-year public health career, Phillips has moved back and forth between the Anne Arundel County Health Department and the state’s Department of Health and tackled epidemics like SARS in 2003 and H1NI1 “swine flu” in 2009.

Phillips will be replaced on at least an interim basis by Dr. Jinlene Chan, who has been the state’s assistant health secretary and chief medical officer since 2018.

“Dr. Chan, you have some very big shoes to fill,” said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) at a State House news conference Wednesday.

Phillips had served as the state’s public health chief under former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) and then returned to Anne Arundel County. In 2018, Robert R. Neall begged Phillips to return to the deputy secretary role at the Department of Health after he was appointed to serve as department secretary. Neall is a former Anne Arundel County executive.

Although Phillips initially agreed to serve only one more year before retirement, Hogan noted that she stayed for almost two years.

“It seems like we’ve actually gotten an extra five years out of her just in the past five months of this pandemic,” Hogan said Wednesday. He added that Phillips will stay on in an “advisory capacity” as the state continues to navigate the novel COVID-19 crisis.

“It is now time for me to return to retirement,” Phillips said.

She expressed confidence that the state would be left in good hands.

“No one in the department has been more present or worked harder with good humor than Dr. Jinlene Chan,” Phillips said. “I know she will carry on the state’s public health work with dedication and with resolve.”

Chan has worked with Phillips for many years, both in state government and in Anne Arundel County.

Although Maryland is doing relatively well when it comes to positive COVID-19 cases compared to other states, a recent 28% increase in hospitalizations “is enough to trigger a stop sign, calling for a pause in further reopening plans,” Hogan said in the afternoon news conference. The total number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the state was 571 as of Wednesday morning.

Maryland has hit a critical “fork in the road,” Hogan said, where the state could either continue health safety precautions or ignore warning signs and risk a surge in positive cases.

In response, Hogan imposed stricter mask-wearing restrictions. As of 5 p.m. on Friday, face masks will be required inside public buildings and at outdoor events where social distancing at least 6 feet apart is not possible.

“While it can be an inconvenience, especially in the heat, wearing a mask is the single best mitigation strategy that we have to fight the virus,” Hogan said.

Chan called the mask guidelines “one of the small inconveniences” Marylanders will have to put up with to keep themselves and their neighbors safe.

Hogan also issued a travel advisory to states with a positivity rate greater than 10%: Florida, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, Nebraska and Idaho. Hogan clarified that this was “a public health advisory and not a ban.” If Marylanders do come back from these states, they should immediately get tested, he said.

On Tuesday, the federal government labeled 21 states as “red zones” given their rapidly rising case numbers. Although Maryland was not one of them, the state is “not immune,” Hogan said.

It would not be surprising if the state experiences an increase in COVID-19 deaths in the next few days, according to Cyrus Shahpar, director of the Prevent Epidemics Team at the Resolve to Save Lives, a global health initiative.

“I would characterize Maryland as having a rising case incidence since the first week of July, a rise in hospitalizations since the second week of July, and we know deaths tend to come three to four weeks after exposure,” he said.

“So Maryland is due for a rise in deaths…The rise will be kind of muted but there will be a rise in the next week or two.”

Shortly after Hogan’s news conference, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group urged Hogan to close non-essential businesses and limit restaurant services to take out.

“If we want to prevent a surge of new cases, people should stay home, going out only if they work in an essential service, need to get food and medicine, or to exercise and get fresh air,” Emily Scarr, the director of Maryland PIRG, said in a statement.

Hogan said the main activity of individuals who have tested positive recently was attending family gatherings. The two other consequential activities were house parties and outdoor events.

More than half of those who tested positive were working outside their homes. Other high-risk locations include shopping centers and retail stores, in addition to restaurants, Hogan said. 

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