After two previous candidates backed out, officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, say they’re on their way to having a top doctor once again — after going months without one during the height of the omicron surge.
The county’s pick for health officer has been sent to the Maryland Department of Health for final approval, County Executive Marc Elrich said.
County health officers in Maryland are joint appointments of local officials and state health authorities.
“Hopefully, very soon, they’ll tell us it’s a go,” Elrich said during an online briefing with reporters Wednesday.
The county’s previous health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, left late last summer after leading the county through the beginning of the pandemic — and becoming the target of online abuse and threats related to COVID-19 health orders.
Elrich and County Council members have previously said two candidates for the position dropped out of the running after discussion about potential backlash.
Elrich declined to identify the latest candidate, but said the candidate is well-qualified and prepared to tackle a range of health issues impacting the county.
“We had a lot of discussions about the role of the health officer beyond COVID, because there are other things, for example, that COVID laid bare in the community that weren’t related to COVID … underlying weaknesses in public health and disparities in the community.”
Elrich added, “We wanted somebody who was looking broadly at what they would do as a public health officer, not just convince us that they would have dealt with COVID effectively,” Elrich said.
Officials in the county said they’re closely monitoring an uptick in COVID-19 cases driven by the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which is now the dominant virus strain in the U.S.
In the broader region that includes D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that BA.2 now makes up about 67% of total COVID cases. That’s slightly lower than the nationwide average of 72%.
However, so far, the uptick in cases has not had a “dramatic impact on hospitalizations,” which remain very low, said Sean O’Donnell, public health emergency manager. Fewer than 2% of hospital beds in the county are occupied by COVID patients.
“We do expect, again, to have some transmission of BA.2 here, but we hope that it will be a short-lived and not a high spike.”
The county said it saw a 300% increase in weekly vaccination rates following the authorization of a second booster dose for people older than 50 and people with compromised immune systems.
Overall, just over half of county residents — 53.3% — have received at least one booster dose. At least one booster dose is recommended for everyone 12 and older who is already fully vaccinated.
It’s unclear when the state will give the final approval to the county health officer position.
At the time Gayles resigned, officials had hoped to have a replacement named by December.
Gayles, who took a position with a San Francisco-based telehealth company, told a Maryland legislative committee last month he became the victim of a “torrent of personal threats” and was given police protection, following a dispute with state officials over private school closures in the summer of 2020.
James Bridgers, who has a doctorate in public health, has been serving as acting health officer since Gayles’ departure in September. The permanent position requires a medical degree, according to state rules.