Public health workers from different corners of Maryland told state lawmakers Tuesday that they felt threatened by residents and undermined, and even retaliated against, by leadership at the state health department during the past two years of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers sought the stories from the state employees — a whistleblower from the health department headquarters and two county health officers — who normally go about their duties in relative anonymity.
But they found themselves in more public roles and sometimes at odds with residents and parents, local council people and the very people at the state whose policies on masking, vaccinations or school closures they were seeking to interpret and implement.
The result has been an unprecedented turnover in county health officers and a “toxic” environment for some workers left on the job, said Sen. Clarence Lam, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight.
Seven county health officers have departed in the past two years since the coronavirus pandemic began, noted Lam, a physician who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties.
“In the most recent incident, a health officer was terminated by the secretary of health with no justification except in response to an apparent politicized local effort to undermine and unseat him,” he said. “This sets a dangerous precedent at a time when our local health officers already face unparalleled threats and intimidation just for doing their jobs.”
And the health department employee who called attention to a contractor’s use of possibly spoiled vaccine doses said she was retaliated against by being removed from her position.
Lam said there already are bills winding through the legislature that could address some of the issues. One would give local health officers who are state employees more job protections by specifying potential reasons for their removal, such as immorality or neglecting their duties.
The second bill centers on audits of emergency contracts by the state’s inspector general and would include a provision specifically granting authority for investigations of retaliation against workers.
But Lam said one reason for Tuesday’s separate hearing was to make it clear that lawmakers are watching what’s been happening to state workers and will seek to hold the health department accountable.
“Members of the General Assembly don’t find the circumstances regarding the health officer or whistleblower to be acceptable,” he said. “We as a legislature have a responsibility to conduct oversight of agencies of government to ensure that they are doing the right thing and acting properly. I’m not sure in these instances they are doing the right thing or acting properly.”
The panel heard testimony from some of the officers and from Jessicah Ray, a state health department worker who says she was retaliated against after complaining a vendor was mishandling vaccine doses and delayed seeking advice from federal regulators about potentially spoiled doses.
Ray and Lam said state agencies are now looking into the matter, and emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun showed that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the state agency to revaccinate people who may have gotten spoiled doses.
Officials from the Maryland Department of Health said they have sought to notify 876 people vaccinated around the state in summer and fall who needed to be revaccinated. Of those, 378 have responded so far to outreach, including text messages, an email, a letter and phone calls.
Andy Owen, an agency spokesman, said in a statement that officials take it seriously when there are safety issues, as well as threats of retaliation for reporting.
The agency “takes all concerns about safety seriously and does not condone any form of retaliation,” he said, adding that official policy calls for issues to go up the chain of command until they are “considered adequately addressed.”
Ray was hired as a clinical adviser for the health department in September 2020 with responsibilities for COVID-19 testing and then vaccinations. But she said she was demoted with no explanation and told not to have contact with former colleagues after she voiced her concerns. She said she also was rebuffed by state officials who said they had no authority to investigate her treatment.
“Although I raised safety and compliance concerns clearly and frequently through the appropriate channels, they were continually ignored, and my voiced concerns progressively caused a decrease in my clinical oversight authority, ultimately resulting in my removal of influence over clinical operations,” she said in prepared testimony. “My only avenue remaining to address the worsening situation was to provide formal state reports and ultimately external disclosures.”
She continues to work for the state health department, and continues to believe the vaccination program is taking safety risks and that other workers don’t want to voice concerns. She called herself an example of what could happen to whistleblowers.
“The issue is not investigated,” she said, “the person is.”
The panel also heard testimony from Dr. David Bishai, former Harford County health officer who was fired from his position last year by the county council, a move that requires approval from state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader.
Bishai said he left a tenured professor position to lead the agency in a time of need and sought an explanation. He wasn’t given one, though he said he was aware there had been protests by residents after he interpreted and implemented state pandemic policies.
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He said health officers still on the job “shouldn’t expect that people at headquarters will have your back.”
Dr. Travis Gayles, a former Montgomery County health officer, also testified after resigning from his post. He said he felt undermined by state health officials who gave no indication of what would be announced about pandemic policies during regular news conferences with Gov. Larry Hogan. He said local staff was “left to guess” what would happen and wasn’t asked for input.
Hogan and his administration often left decisions on such things as school closing and mask mandates to local authorities, but then through comments, tweets and policies, seemed to undermine local moves.
Ultimately, there were “threats toward me, my family and my staff,” Gayles said.
According to the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, seven health officers from five counties have left their posts during the pandemic, including in Caroline, Charles, Harford, Montgomery and Carroll counties. Only Bishai was fired.
Lam noted Schrader was invited to provide testimony at the hearing Tuesday but did not attend.
Owen, the health department spokesman, said in a statement that officials believe local health officers are due gratitude for their work, as they “have played a critical role in helping the state navigate the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the past two years.”