Two former county health officers told state lawmakers that pandemic policy-making in Maryland has become dangerously politicized and that the state Department of Health routinely failed to support health officers who come under attack, even though they are state employees.
Former Harford County Health Officer David Bishai, who was fired by the Harford County Council in October, told a legislative panel that he was let go without cause after he provided sound health guidance.
Dr. Travis Gayles, who stepped down as Montgomery County’s health chief in August, told lawmakers that he and his staff received personal threats following a charged social media post from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) that same month.
The two men testified before the legislature’s Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight, which is co-chaired by Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), a practicing physician, and Del. Marc B. Korman (D-Montgomery).
Bishai described being fired by Deputy State Health Secretary Jinlene Chan after “a closed door vote… on partisan lines” by the council.
Currently, local health officials serve at the pleasure of the local body that has authority over health policy and the state health secretary — meaning a local health officer can be terminated without cause.
“I was targeted in a twitter campaign and made the scapegoat for simply being the face of enforcement of the governor’s [COVID-19] executive order and MDH policies,” he testified. “The rage-tweeting really was started by members of the House of Delegates.”
Bishai, a physician and health economist who formerly worked at Johns Hopkins University, said he believes the attacks and subsequent dismissal came after he described the potential threat posed by “trombones and clarinets in a marching band.”
“The good advice is: If you want to stop aerosols containing COVID during a time of high transmission, you really do want to protect the students in the marching band,” he said. “I simply gave the scientific advice, but that gave prominent politicians a chance to posture.”
A request for comment from Harford County Council President Pat Vincenti (R) was not immediately returned.
Gayles said his relationship with state health officials shifted following an Aug. 1, 2020, tweet from Hogan opposing Montgomery County’s decision to temporarily close private and parochial schools.
“This is a decision for schools and parents,” Hogan wrote, “not politicians.”
“Health officers are not politicians,” Gayles told the committee. “This tone suggested that health care decisions were being made from a political angle.”
After the private school controversy, local health officers saw their decision-making power narrowed, Gayles said. The message was that health officers who exercised their local discretionary powers “would be ridiculed in public, knee-capped in those responses, and not supported in those decisions.”
He said the episode “set off a torrent of personal threats to me, my family and my staff.” He was given police protection and told to switch up his commuting patterns, and the county health office added new security precautions.
Gayles said local health officers were rarely consulted on key decisions involving testing, masking orders, vaccine distribution and equity policies — nor were they given any guidance before Hogan announced new policies at press conferences.
“It became, unfortunately, a guessing game and a joke of what was going to happen when press conferences were being developed, hamstringing local jurisdictions’ abilities to develop contingency plans and plans to roll out and explain to our residents what was happening,” Gayles told lawmakers. “In the case of a pandemic, this information could mean saving lives.”
Lam has introduced a bill that would make it harder for local health officers to lose their jobs.
His bill would give local elected officials and the state health secretary the power to fire the local health officer only for cause in cases of immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency, or willful neglect of duty.
Lam’s bill was heard last week in the Senate Finance Committee, and its House cross-file, sponsored by Dels. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) and Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard), was heard last week in the House Health and Government Operations, which Pendergrass chairs. Neither bill has been voted on yet.
After the testimony, Lam expressed concern about the agency’s attitudes toward Maryland’s 24 local health officers. “It almost sounds as though they are toxic now,” he said.
Health Secretary Dennis Schrader was invited to testify at Tuesday’s hearing but declined, Lam said.
In a statement, agency spokesman Andy Owen said, “Local health officers have played a critical role in helping the state navigate the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the past two years, and each one of them has our gratitude.”
Del. Jefferson Ghrist (R-Middle Shore) sparred with the two former health officers, pushing back against their claims that politics interfered with their ability to carry out their duties.
“I would call it governance and not politics,” he said. Ghrist suggested that Bishai may have been fired because health policy was “taken out of the hands” of local elected officials, who he said are more “accountable” to the public.
“Our health officers were making public policy,” he added. “You guys were making decisions that you were enforcing and folks didn’t like it.”
Lawmakers hear from “whistleblower”
Legislators also heard testimony from Jessicah Ray, a state Department of Health clinician who used to oversee some of the state’s mobile vaccination sites. She said she was demoted after raising alarms about sites that were “dangerous and illegal to operate because they were not CDC-compliant and not properly staffed or resourced.”
She said she flagged issues repeatedly to dozens of agency superiors but was told by one that “we don’t need a Cadillac, just a Honda.”
She said “retaliatory actions,” such as being stripped of her duties and frozen out of meetings and files, “spiked” after she persisted in sharing her concerns.
The Baltimore Sun reported in February that Federal and state agencies are investigating allegations that MDH retaliated against Ray, who said she pushed health officials to notify potentially more than 1,000 patients who may have received spoiled vaccine doses and insisted they remediate problems at vaccine clinics run by state contractors.
She said there were other sites — those the agency put together with its own staff — that had “worse (CDC) compliance.”
“These sites operated with untrained staff, no clinical leader, no [epinephrine] in case of an emergency, and no vaccine tracking at all,” she alleged.
Owen said the agency “takes all concerns about safety seriously and does not condone any form of retaliation.”
Ray also alleged rampant favoritism in the push to set up vaccination sites.
“New employees would show up unannounced, hired because they are a friend of someone, not because they are qualified. We are unable to fire people that are incompetent because their father is a judge, they are the daughter of the current deputy, or they are friends with an executive. Instead they hire more expensive staff to support the incompetent staff and remove people that point out these problems,” she said.
Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.