After nearly eight years as what Mayor Muriel Bowser called “the District’s doctor,” Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt is leaving her post as director of DC Health at the end of the month.
On Thursday, she joined WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and Luke Garrett on our DMV Download podcast to talk about her legacy and about what’s next. (Listen to the podcast below or on any podcast platform.)
Nesbitt, a Michigan native, is finishing up her second stint with DC Health, having served as senior deputy director from 2008 to 2011.
“I was more than honored and absolutely elated when Mayor Bowser appointed me as director back in 2015,” she said. “This job has absolutely been an honor, and the privilege of a lifetime.”
That said, she’s looking for a new opportunity to work in public health: “There’s a lot we need to do to improve the health of our communities. And at this point in my career, I’d like to be able to address the health of our communities from a different vantage point, other than governmental public health.”
Bowser, at an event Thursday, said, “I’m glad we were able to keep her in public health and public service as long as we did.”
Most people’s familiarity with Nesbitt grew from the daily briefings she gave with Bowser and other governmental and health officials in the early days of the pandemic.
“She’s outstanding, and I think D.C. residents know that,” Bowser said at an event Thursday. In the pandemic briefings, “They had the opportunity to witness her brilliance.”
Nesbitt told WTOP that having been in the role of director for five years when the pandemic hit helped smooth the District’s response: “We had already built a relationship with both trust and support, which I think was extremely important. By the time that we needed to appear before the public on a daily basis, we had a way of respecting each other’s views and perspectives.”
That led to the kind of “collaborative and very respectful relationship with each other, during some of the most difficult and tough times for the city,” Nesbitt said.
Before the morning public briefings, there were internal briefings, and the time it takes to prepare for those: “I’m a morning person,” Nesbitt said, “but that took being a morning person to a slightly different level.”
Bowser said that one of her criteria for the director’s job was the ability to be the public face of the department, and the briefings only grew Nesbitt’s profile.
“Public health is a science,” Nesbitt said; “people train for it.” At the head of a department with master’s degree- and doctorate-level experts, Nesbitt, though a doctor herself, was charged with “taking in all of those inputs and doing my best job to make it plain language and give people those simple instructions they could follow at the various phases of an ever-evolving pandemic of what was OK to do to reduce your risk.”
The data gap
That said, confidence in the health department was shaken in May when it was discovered that DC Health had not been transmitting daily COVID-19 statistics to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for nearly two weeks.
The weekly updates on the District’s coronavirus dashboard were unaffected, but Nesbitt, who agreed with Bowser’s characterization of her as a “data nerd,” said the gap halted the flow of information that’s shared among a lot of area, federal and nationwide partners, as well as “citizen scientists” who were putting data on dashboards for people to make comparisons among jurisdictions.
“But it never impacted our ability to be able to care for our residents, or my ability to observe trends, to see whether or not we were going in the right direction here,” Nesbitt said. “And I think that’s, for me, the most important thing for people to be able to understand.”
The pandemic is far from over, and Nesbitt reinforced the importance of vaccination.
“We’re in a different phase of the pandemic,” because while the virus seems to be spreading faster, it’s not causing people to be as sick. There are also more tools to combat the virus, such as vaccines and therapeutics. “We have so many more tools in our toolkit than we did back in March 2020.”
“We don’t know how these variants are going to behave,” Nesbitt said, referring especially to the new BA. 5 variant — “and that’s the tricky part.”
That’s why the District was “always very aggressive” about vaccination, as each new variation can “become smarter, and to evade our vaccines.”
Nesbitt in 2015 launched the Office of Health Equity, and led initiatives to expand health services inside schools, as well as efforts to improve maternal and child health programs.
She said that while her public legacy will likely center on the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the farewell conversations she’s had with her staff center on those efforts, as well as school health resources; home visiting programs, racial justice and equity and more: “Backyard chickens, bike lanes, goat yoga — lots of things that I’ll always look back on.”
Nesbitt has a broad background, and she said she’s looking for an opportunity to use all of it.
“I’m looking forward to exploring opportunities that’ll allow me to look back over my career,” the doctor said, “being a practicing family doc, working in governmental public health, having worked in academics, both teaching health policy and working with medical students and academic environments. And I’m looking for an opportunity that really lets me bring all of that experience together and working to improve community health.”
She added, “DC Health will always be home. It’s been home twice.”
Bowser said she’d have a choice for interim director in a few weeks.