No one thought the pandemic would last this long.
That’s one of the thoughts Montgomery County, Maryland’s outgoing health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, shared days before he leaves the job on Sunday.
Looking back at the start of the outbreak, Gayles said the assumption was that it would be a “nice, linear, seamless transition” in terms of moving from quarantine to vaccination and the return to normal.
“Unfortunately, public health folks have been made to be the scapegoats or enemies of progress,” when it came to reopening businesses and schools, when “we just want to make sure that people are safe,” he said.
But the scope and the danger of the coronavirus became crystal-clear as cases tore through nursing homes, and the number of deaths grew in April 2020.
Gayles remembers getting a spreadsheet with data on fatalities. And that, he said, “was very sobering.”
Looking at the names, ages, occupations and addresses of those who died as a result of the coronavirus was a day Gayles said he would never forget.
“These are real people; real lives that have been lost to this disease,” he said.
One of the high points of the pandemic for Gayles was the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“I remember the personal happiness that I got when my parents called and said they were able to get the vaccine … that was pretty good,” he said.
News that Gayles was leaving his position with the county was first reported on Aug. 18. It came, he said, after his memo to county officials explaining that he would be leaving was leaked to the media while he was on vacation in France.
The email that arrived to county officials in the early morning hours “created undue chaos and confusion,” Gayles said. It was not, he said, a result of any discord between his office and county officials. It was simply that he was sending the notice from another time zone.
County officials, including County Executive Marc Elrich, have praised Gayles and credited him with helping the county achieve high vaccination rates.
Gayles received criticism during the pandemic that often turned ugly, but he said he has also received thank-yous from county residents.
“I recognize the guidance we put forward has complicated a lot of folks’ lives and situations. I don’t dismiss that. But, I think hopefully, folks understand that our challenge isn’t to make guidance for one family or one group. We’ve really got to look across the board for the entirety of our community,” Gayles said.
Gayles departure comes as Montgomery County is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and as students across the state head back to school.
There have been concerns from parents about crowding in cafeterias and hallways, and worries over reports of Montgomery County students being sent home to quarantine after individuals tested positive for COVID-19. Last week, Montgomery County schools confirmed that as many as 1,000 students and staff members across the school system had been told to quarantine for 10 days.
Gayles said it’s important to remember that health officials, not school officials, set the policies for contact tracing, reporting and quarantining.
“I want folks at home to understand that, you know, we’re not arbitrarily giving out guidance to send kids home based upon, you know, one symptom. It is a total picture and assessment.” He also emphasized that no one, including health officials, want to keep kids home from school.
His advice for his successor: “Trust your training; trust your knowledge; trust your team.”
Gayles said he’s had a great deal of support from county officials and health department staff.
“We’ve got really smart, brilliant, engaging folks who are doing important work,” he said, adding that the next person to serve as health officer “won’t have to start from scratch.”
Gayles, along with a number of Montgomery County officials, insisted on focusing on equity as they worked to get residents vaccinated.
“I think that helped by getting increased buy-in from the community to acknowledge that we had a sincere desire and genuine interest in making sure this worked for everybody,” Gayles said.
Gayles will serve as the chief health officer for Hazel Health, a San Francisco-based startup that provides in-school telehealth services. This will include access to mental health care, and that’s a particular area of interest for him.
“All that we’ve asked kids to do, to navigate and endure through COVID, it’s going to be even more important for them to get those services,” Gayles said.
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