The familiar, comforting presence of Fran Philips, former deputy secretary of public health services and Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) “trusted adviser,” will no longer be felt as he briefs Marylanders on the state’s battle with COVID-19.
Philips announced her retirement late last month, ending her 33-year career in the midst of the public health crisis.
“It’s a huge loss for us,” said Hogan, who called Philips a “fixture” at his news conferences “since before the crisis became a crisis.”
“She’s been a trusted adviser to me, a guiding force for our entire team and a steady and calming presence to Marylanders who are looking for answers and reassurance and she’s simply done an amazing job,” he said.
But the state hasn’t been left leaderless in a time of crisis: Dr. Jinlene Chan, another public health lifer, has stepped up in Philips’ stead as acting deputy secretary of public health services — a role she’s held before.
And while Hogan acknowledged that Chan has “some very big shoes to fill,” he asserted his confidence in her ability to pick up where Philips has left off.
“We have two incredible women here that represent a whole team of people that really have been working hard,” Hogan said.
Philips has publicly displayed nothing but confidence in Chan’s ability.
“No one in the department has been more present or worked harder with good humor than Dr. Jinlene Chan,” she said of her successor. “She’s an experienced physician and public health leader and she sets a great example.”
“I know that she will carry on the state’s public health work with dedication and with resolve,” Phillips added.
Chan, who has worked under Philips during the last two years as assistant secretary of health, said that she has worked closely with the public health powerhouse for most of her career, navigating many challenges — the state’s present circumstances included.
While conceding there is “never a great time to leave,” Chan lauded Philips as a “tremendous public health leader” at a state and national level.
“I’ve been very privileged to have had the chance to work with her throughout most of my career and really look forward to continuing on some of the foundational aspects of our COVID response that she’s laid down and also to move forward to meet the future challenges that I’m sure are going to present themselves,” she said.
Who is Dr. Chan?
Chan grew up in South Carolina. According to a biography from the Anne Arundel County Department of Health, she received dual bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and Spanish literature from the University of Georgia and attended the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where she received her medical training.
Chan told Maryland Matters in a brief phone interview this week that her passion for public health grew from an internship she landed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that took her to South America — an experience that she said allowed her to view public health as a community endeavor.
She describes her time there as “pivotal.”
“I think collectively and combined, that experience and that year really shaped a lot of my thinking about health care, about the importance of communities and how we collectively can approach it to improve the health for not just individual patients, but for populations as a whole,” she said.
Chan moved to Maryland to complete her residencies in general preventative medicine and general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and to pursue a Masters of Public Health degree at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Upon completing her studies, she served with the Anne Arundel County Department of Health for 12 years, working in a number of capacities before being named the county’s acting health officer in 2012. She was officially appointed to the job in 2014 and served there until she left to serve as the acting deputy secretary of public health services at the Maryland Department of Health in 2017.
During her tenure with the county health department, Chan worked on the opioid epidemic, infant mortality and chronic care services in Anne Arundel County.
Steve Schuh, executive director of the state’s opioid operational command center, who served as Anne Arundel County executive from 2014 to 2018, said the state is “lucky” to have Chan in her new role.
“Dr. Jinline Chan is an exemplary public servant and public health physician,” he said in a statement provided to Maryland Matters. “Her deep knowledge of infectious disease, earned through experiences that include work on past pandemics, will be an asset in her new role as Acting Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services. Dr. Chan is certainly up to the enormous task ahead of her, and Maryland is lucky to have her.”
When Chan joined the Maryland Department of Health, Schuh brought Philips back to the Anne Arundel County Health Department as the acting health officer from 2017 to 2018, until she was tapped for a second tour of duty as the deputy secretary of public health at the Maryland Department of Health.
Philips had served as Anne Arundel County’s health officer for 15 years starting in the early ‘90s. She left the department in 2008 to work for the Maryland Department of Health as deputy secretary for public health services during Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s (D) administration.
Philips left the state department in 2013.
Chan served as acting deputy secretary of public health services in 2017 until Philips permanently filled the role the following year. She then accepted the position of assistant secretary of health.
Prepping, planning and crossing fingers
In her role as assistant secretary of health, Chan’s main focus was on increasing the state’s COVID-19 testing capacity.
During the news conference held in late July announcing her promotion to acting deputy secretary, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) credited Chan with expanding the state’s testing capacity from 50 to up to 25,000 tests per day.
Chan told Maryland Matters that while she still has a hand in standing up testing sites across the state, her scope of responsibilities now is much broader, including planning and maintaining daily operations, accounting for a potential hospital bed surge and keeping up with the state’s contact tracing program.
Chan said she’s encouraged by Maryland’s “strong public health leadership” — including Hogan, who has come to verbal blows with President Trump and other officials over reopening procedure.
Chan notes that Hogan’s decisions are “not always the most popular.” Hogan has also caught flak from constituents on both sides of the debate — some who say his restrictions are unconstitutional and others who claim he’s reopening far too quickly.
“But it really is about taking the information that we have, and making the best decisions that we can for Marylanders in that moment,” she said.
Maryland leaders may be willing to make some tough calls, but the state isn’t out of the public health crisis yet.
While the Department of Health shows a positivity rate of just over 3.3% for Marylanders who have taken COVID tests, Johns Hopkins COVID-tracking dashboard pegs the state’s rate at 8.6%. Those conflicting statistics baffled lawmakers at Chan’s first briefing of the General Assembly’s Joint COVID-19 Legislative Workgroup last week.
In her interview with Maryland Matters, Chan called the Maryland Department of Health’s current metrics encouraging but did say she fears the potential for a surge of cases in the fall, which would coincide with the traditional flu season. Chan said she and other officials have watched summer surges in other states, prepping, planning and crossing their fingers that Maryland will avoid a similar fate.
Asked where she’d like to see Maryland by the end of 2020, Chan — a mother of three who lives in Odenton — said she hopes that community spread of the virus will be diminished. She urged Marylanders to continue wearing masks, washing their hands and keeping a safe physical distance between themselves and their peers.
“The last thing that we really want to do is to stand back up some of the larger measures that we had to implement in the spring, which was to close down a lot of these retail establishments and other settings,” she said, “and so it really is incumbent on all of us as Marylanders to work together to make that happen.”