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Maryland Health Department's pandemic response under fire


The Maryland Department of Health (MDH) came under fire at a joint committee hearing Tuesday, where former county health officers and a whistleblower addressed what Sen. Clarence Lam called “deep rooted systemic concerns.”

Among those concerns was the departure of seven local health officers from their positions in the past two years.

One of those officers was Dr. David Bishai, former Harford County health officer. He was fired last October after facing backlash from people upset with his COVID safety guidelines. He said they spread misinformation and called for his resignation.

Bishai said he learned of his firing in a meeting with Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan.

“Dr. Chan looks me in the eye and says: ‘did you know that health officers can be terminated at will?’” Bishai said.

He said Chan told him he was being terminated at the request of the Harford County Council.

“I asked Dr. Chan, ‘why am I being terminated?’ And she answered, ‘the county council decided that it wants to go in a new direction.’ Now, that wasn’t much of an answer.”

Bishai said he pressed Chan to clarify, but that she told him “that’s all I can say.”

He said he later learned he was voted out by council members behind closed doors, along party lines. He said state health officials still did not offer further explanation.

“You shouldn't be trusting that the people at headquarters will have your back,” he warned local health officers. “If it's expedient to ditch you, they will turn their back on you.”

He said he wants local health officials to be “treated like human beings,” not “whipping boys.”

Dr. Travis Gayles, former county health officer of Montgomery County, left his role in September 2021.

Gayles said he and his family and staff suffered a “torrent of personal threats,” when he made the decision to keep private schools closed to reduce COVID spread in 2020.

“I personally requested guidance from the Secretary and Deputy Secretary for how to safely reopen schools,” Gayles said. “We received none.”

His decision triggered a federal lawsuit in August that year. The lawsuit was dismissed. Gayles also noted that Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted a statement criticizing his decision, saying that it should be up to “schools and parents, not politicians.”

“Health officers are not politicians,” Gayles said.

He said that while local health departments technically had certain freedoms, the department helped create “an environment” that limited local decision-making.

“We would be ridiculed in public, kneecapped in those responses and not supported in those decisions,” he said.

Gayles added that the state health department often kept local health officials in the dark about important COVID updates, leaving them to “guessing games” and making communication with their constituents more difficult.

Lam, a Democrat and physician who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, organized the hearing.

He said it sounded as though the relationship between the state and local departments had become “toxic” during the pandemic.

“That is incredibly concerning, because we're still in the midst of a pandemic and still dealing with its after effects,” Lam said.

Bishai replied that he felt local talent and perspectives were continually “not allowed into the picture.”

The joint committee also summoned Dr. Jessicah Ray, a whistleblower at the state department of health. Ray said she faced retaliation for raising concerns about a vendor, TrueCare24, distributing potentially spoiled vaccines. Many of those vaccines went to people in state correctional facilities.

Ray said she was demoted on short notice for speaking up.

“The main red flag I reported to my leadership was the non compliance of the MDH vaccine sites, how they were dangerous and illegal to operate because they were not CDC compliant, and not properly staffed or resourced,” Ray said.

She said her concerns weren’t taken seriously by the department’s recovery program.

“I was told by the director of the program, ‘we don't need a Cadillac, just a Honda,’” Ray said.

Ray said the problems go beyond TrueCare24, that the health department is prioritizing vaccination numbers over safety, and that she and staff continue to face retaliation for raising safety concerns.

She also raised concerns about the efficiency of mobile clinics, which she said are often placed right next to other vaccination sites.

Ray also alleged that contractors are charging the state steeply for vaccinations - five doses could cost as much as $10,000 to administer.

Lam said that allegation is “disturbing.”

“That does not seem like a good bang for the buck for the state,” he said.

Lam said he invited Health Secretary Dennis Schrader to speak Tuesday, but he did not attend.

Andy Owen, a spokesperson for the state health department, told WYPR on Wednesday that Heather Shek, director of the governmental affairs office, was “available for questions” during the hearing, but that no one asked her any.

He added that local health officers “have their gratitude” for helping the state navigate the pandemic, and that MDH “takes all concerns about safety seriously and does not condone any form of retaliation.”

Lam said the committee will follow up on the concerns raised Tuesday and that there are bills this session that could potentially offer more job security for county health officers.

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.