Political pressure, threats leave Montgomery Co. without permanent health officer

Montgomery County, Maryland, has been without a permanent health officer since September — and for a second time, a top candidate has declined the job over concerns about public and political pressure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two candidates have been offered the permanent job as health officer, succeeding Dr. Travis Gayles, who left the job last August, but both turned down the offers after discussions about the potential for backlash, according to Council President Gabe Albornoz and County Executive Marc Elrich.

During a virtual news briefing Wednesday, Elrich said that local officials have been upfront about Gayles’ resignation following threats levied against him, his staff and his family for implementing state and federal pandemic guidance at the county level.

It wasn’t until the offer was on the table that the last candidate to become Montgomery County’s new health officer turned down the job over how politicized it can become.

Elrich said that’s understandable.

“I think people may have trepidation about doing this job,” he said. “There are hundreds of vacancies around the country, in terms of empty health officer positions.”

County executives have hiring authority over health officers, but state officials ultimately get to approve selections. James Bridgers has been serving as Montgomery County’s acting health officer since last summer, but he lacks the state’s required credentials to take Gayles’ place permanently.

As Annapolis considers a bill that would make it harder for county health officials to be fired, Gayles testified to lawmakers Tuesday that he and his staff had received personal threats that accelerated after a tweet from Gov. Larry Hogan opposing the county’s temporary shuttering of private schools early in the pandemic.

“Health officers are not politicians,” Gayles said. “This tone suggested that health care decisions were being made from a political angle.”

Joining Gayles before the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight was former Harford County Health Officer David Bishai, who alleges he was terminated last October in the wake of online abuse — encouraged by members of the House of Delegates — for enforcing state-issued guidelines.

“I do think they should be absolutely protected against being fired,” Elrich said Wednesday.

Dr. Earl Stoddard, director of Montgomery County’s emergency management and homeland security office, echoed sentiments that health officers should be shielded from political pressure over their decision making.

“It’s become highly political in our country, public health as a premise,” Stoddard said. “We expect COVID-19 to go away, but there’s going to be future pressure on vaccine mandates in schools and for things that have nothing to do with COVID as a result of vitriol and political positions.”

The numbers

During his weekly pandemic update, Elrich said coronavirus case rates continue to decline across Montgomery County after a surge attributed to the omicron variant.

As of Tuesday, the county was reporting an average of 60 new cases for every 100,000 residents per day — a “low” rating on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community transition scale.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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