Montgomery Co. health officer Dr. Travis Gayles resigns

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles adjusts his mask before talking with members of the media on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles, who helped navigate Maryland’s most populous county through the coronavirus pandemic, is resigning.

In an email to County Executive Marc Elrich and members of the Montgomery County Council Wednesday morning, Gayles submitted his formal resignation and said his final day with the county would be Sept. 12.

“I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve the residents of Montgomery County for the past 4 years, including through the past 18 months related to Covid-19,” Gayles wrote in the email. “It has been an honor to work alongside you all and provide health related guidance across a host of important issues. Thank you for creating a space for science to be heard and embraced, and for advocating for equitable access to improved health outcomes for all of our residents.”

The email did not provide any indication of his future plans.

Gayles’ plan to resign, first reported by The Washington Post, appears to have caught many county officials off-guard. Gayles’ email was received by other county officials shortly before 3 a.m. Gayles is on vacation in France, which is six hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone.

Speaking to reporters during an online media briefing Wednesday afternoon, Elrich praised Gayles for his leadership during the pandemic and said the doctor “has gone through hell” over the past 18 months, pointing to clashes with the governor’s office over pandemic-related decision-making and a “torrent of hate and vitriol” from some county residents over the cautious course of action in lifting coronavirus restrictions that Gayles advocated.

“I believe Dr. Gayles is going to go down as one of the most important people in our county’s history,” Elrich said. “His leadership and strength and compassion as our health department officer during probably the most significant public health threat any of us have ever experienced has been remarkable.”

Of Gayles’ clashes with the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Elrich said Gayles “has been a true profile in courage.”

“To be at odds with your boss is not always an easy thing to do. To be at odds with your boss in a high-profile situation for eighteen months is probably an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. That’s one of the things I really appreciated about Travis — having the courage to tell us the right thing and not the political thing — and being willing to do that, knowing that he was making one of his bosses very unhappy.”

One high-profile flap with state health officials came last summer, following an order issued by Gayles requiring private schools to temporarily maintain virtual-only classes given the community spread of the virus. The measure drew a rebuke from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and a federal lawsuit from some parents.

Gayles, who eventually rescinded that order, maintained he was acting in the best interest of students’ health and safety. The lawsuit was dismissed last month.

County health officers in Maryland are a joint appointment between the counties they serve and the state Department of Health.

Elrich said Dr. Raymond Crowel, the head of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, will immediately begin working with state officials on filling the appointment. Both the county and the state must agree on the final pick.

“I want to be clear about one thing, we’re not going to accept a new health officer from the state who’s not going to lead from what the science and data show,” said Elrich, who added, “If I could clone Dr. Gayles, I would.”

‘Courageous insistence on following the data’

Gayles, who had served as the county’s health officer since 2017, won both praise and criticism for the county’s handling of the pandemic, which included strict coronavirus restrictions and an exceptionally cautious approach toward reopening.

“I’m very grateful to Dr. Gayles for his guidance and his leadership throughout this pandemic over the last year and a half and particularly for his courageous insistence on following the data and the science consistently — even in the face of a lot of the unfair attacks and criticism that he received personally,” said County Council President Tom Hucker in an interview with WTOP.

Overall, officials said the county saw fewer deaths and a slower spread of the virus than other parts of the state because of its cautious approach.

In addition, since the massive COVID-19 vaccination effort began at the start of the year, the county has achieved some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with more than 83% of the eligible population having received jabs.

Hucker, who pointed to a series of other departures from the Elrich administration, urged a speedy process for filling the position.

“That needs to happen very expeditiously, because we don’t want to be without a public health officer in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.

During much of the coronavirus pandemic, Gayles was the “public face” of the county’s virus response, answering questions before the county council and in media briefings on a weekly basis and even appearing in a “60 Minutes” segment about the county’s efforts to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

In an interview with Bethesda magazine last year, Gayles revealed he had been the target of racist and homophobic messages from some residents apparently frustrated about his approach to the pandemic. Some of the messages concerned him enough to talk with Montgomery County police, he said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a national association of county and state health officials said it has tracked more than 250 public health officials who have left their jobs, in part because of the pressures of the pandemic, CNN reported in May.

“My feeling is, he had a really hard year,” Elrich told reporters in the briefing, adding, “We’re really going to miss him.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan and Matt Small contributed to this report. 

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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