Maryland Health Department’s pandemic response under fire

The Maryland Department of Health (MDH) came under fire during a joint committee hearing on Tuesday, where former county health workers and a whistleblower addressed what Senator Clarence Lam called ” deep-rooted systemic concerns”.

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

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

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

“Dr. Chan looks me in the eye and says, ‘Did you know health workers can be fired at will?’ Bishai said.

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

“I asked Dr. Chan, ‘why am I fired?’ And she replied, ‘the county council decided they wanted to go in a new direction.’ Now, that wasn’t really an answer.

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

He said he later learned that he was elected by council members behind closed doors, along party lines. He said state health officials have yet to provide further explanation.

“You shouldn’t believe that people at headquarters will support you,” he warned local health officials. “If it is appropriate to abandon you, they will turn their backs on you.”

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

Dr. Travis Gayles, former Montgomery County Health Officer, stepped down in September 2021.

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

“I have personally sought advice from the secretary and the assistant secretary on how to reopen schools safely,” Gayles said. “We haven’t received any.”

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

“Health workers are not politicians,” Gayles said.

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

“We would be ridiculed in public, humiliated in those responses and unsupported in those decisions,” he said.

Gayles added that the state health department has 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 appeared the relationship between state and local departments had become “toxic” during the pandemic.

“It’s incredibly concerning because we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and we’re still dealing with its aftermath,” Lam said.

Bishai responded that he felt local talent and prospects were continually “not allowed in the picture”.

The joint committee also called in Dr. Jessicah Ray, a whistleblower at the state health department. Ray said she faced retaliation for raising concerns about a supplier, TrueCare24, distributing potentially spoiled vaccines. Many of these vaccines have been given to people in state correctional facilities.

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

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

She said her concerns were not taken seriously by the ministry’s recovery plan.

“The program director said to me, ‘we don’t need a Cadillac, just a Honda,'” Ray said.

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

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

Ray also alleged that the contractors charged the state heavily for vaccinations – five doses could cost up to $10,000 to administer.

Lam said the allegation is “disturbing”.

“It doesn’t seem like good value for money for the state,” he said.

Lam said he invited Health Secretary Dennis Schrader to speak on Tuesday, but was not present.

Andy Owen, spokesman for the state health department, told WYPR on Wednesday that Heather Shek, director of the office of government affairs, was “available for questions” during the hearing, but no one told her. posed.

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

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