Fran Phillips stood at the podium and listened intently as a reporter asked a question on everyone’s minds: “Do you wear a mask to the grocery store?”
The question caught Phillips by surprise, rare for the unflappable public health nurse.
“I haven’t been to the grocery store in a month and a half,” she replied, smiling.
But then she gave measured advice: Yes, wearing a mask will help prevent you from unintentionally infecting others around you with the coronavirus, she said.
Phillips hasn’t been to the store in ages because she has been in the thick of Maryland’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as Maryland’s deputy health secretary for public health. Before most Marylanders were aware of the imminent threat of the new virus, Phillips was updating the state’s plans, coordinating with hospitals and briefing lawmakers.
The pandemic is the kind of event public health professionals plan for and train for, in hopes it never happens. Now, it’s a career-defining crisis.
“There are moments where, with my public health colleagues, we look at each other and say: ‘Is this really happening?’ ” Phillips said this week in a brief phone interview.
For a time, Phillips thought the coronavirus might be like past contagions that flared up and petered out, like the H1N1 flu or Zika viruses or SARS. Instead, the coronavirus emerged quickly and with such force that it has taken tens of thousands of lives around the world and upended society.
Phillips’ work days — which are every day — start at 6 a.m., when the latest numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths are tallied internally by the health department. By 7:30 a.m., she’s on a conference call with representatives from scores of state agencies. Usually by 9 a.m., the governor is briefed. The numbers are made public at 10 a.m.
Then there’s an endless stream of decisions, meetings, conference calls and, sometimes, news conferences. She often doesn’t wrap up her work until after 10 p.m.
“I can’t tell you how many times I need to recharge my phone. It’s really, really intense,” Phillips said.
A nurse by training, Phillips, 69, began her career working in pediatrics and then emergency medicine in Washington, D.C., before moving to public health.
Phillips said she saw patients return to the hospital repeatedly — not because of poor care, but because they lacked the means to stay healthy on their own. She thought that working in public health would give her a chance to attack the root causes of chronic health needs and health disparities.
“I knew this is where I could make improvements,” Phillips said.
“There are moments where, with my public health colleagues, we look at each other and say: ‘Is this really happening?' ”— Fran Phillips
When she joined Anne Arundel County’s health department in the late 1980s, one of her early projects was creating a case management program for county residents with HIV.
By 1993, she was named county health officer by Robert Neall, then the Republican county executive. At the time, Neall called Phillips an “exceptional administrator and health care professional.”
Now Neall is the state health secretary and is Phillips’ boss again.
In her career, Phillips has done two stints as Anne Arundel’s health officer — and briefly was the county’s interim fire chief — and twice served as deputy state health secretary for public health.
She’s worked for Democrats and Republicans, including five county executives and two governors, winning praise from leaders of both parties.
And she’s been in challenging situations before.
In 2012, while working for the state, Phillips led a process to enact comprehensive medical and safety regulations for abortion providers, after a teenager was hospitalized following a botched abortion in Cecil County. The regulations ultimately won praise from both the Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes abortion, and groups that advocate for access to abortion.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein considers Phillips a mentor, going back to when he was Baltimore’s health commissioner and she was Anne Arundel’s health officer.
Later, when he was principal deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Sharfstein listened to a consultant present a report on what makes an ideal public health communicator. The hypothetical description sounded an awful lot like Phillips.
“They described a nurse, she’s in her 50s, she has a matter-of-fact tone,” Sharfstein recalled. “I was like: ‘I know her. That’s Fran Phillips. Do you want me to get her on the phone?’ ”
Sharfstein, who also has served as Maryland’s health secretary and is now a vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins University, said Phillips emanates competence, whether it’s speaking at a news conference being streamed to the entire state or making tough decisions in a meeting.
They worked together for several years at the state health department.
“She combines both an obvious sense of commitment and caring with a matter-of-fact tone,” Sharfstein said. “She’s the nurse who tells you what’s really going on.”
During news conferences and interviews, Gov. Larry Hogan comes off as serious and determined, occasionally bordering on grim. The Republican governor sometimes seems impatient with the federal government’s slow response or Marylanders who ignore health directives.
Phillips, on the other hand, exudes calmness and frankness with a dash of optimism. As concerns have grown about outbreaks of the coronavirus in nursing homes, Phillips used a news conference to look directly into the camera and tell residents and administrators about steps the state was taking to protect them.
Hogan and Phillips make a good team, Sharfstein said. Hogan doesn’t overstep his bounds on medical issues, deferring to Phillips on questions about specifics of the coronavirus and the state’s response.
“He understands her role better than a lot of other governors understand. He’s right to rely on her because she is, I think, the best,” Sharfstein said.
Phillips praised Hogan for his focus on the pandemic and for assembling a “remarkable” team of staff and medical advisers. She said Hogan saw what was really coming before she did.
“The governor was ahead of all of us,” Phillips said.
Karen Salmon, the state’s schools superintendent, hadn’t worked with Phillips before. She was immediately impressed with her candor, even in delivering difficult information.
“She just states the facts. It’s not like she’s trying to put a spin on something. She states: ‘Here’s where we are and here’s what we need to do.’" Salmon said.
Former Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican, said Phillips’ name came up immediately when he had an opening for a county health officer in 2017. He needed someone who was able to manage high-priority issues ranging from opioid addiction to seasonal flu to vaccination programs. Solid communications skills were a must, too.
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“You stir all that together: Deep knowledge, leadership, communications skills and breadth of experience. Fran Phillips is one of those rare people with that unique combination of skills,” Schuh said.
Phillips agreed to be Anne Arundel’s interim health officer for almost two years, before returning to the state in 2018.
Now Phillips finds herself adapting and then adapting again as information emerges about the virus and whom it might strike.
She worries about parents having to teach their children for the first time, about kids who miss their friends, about Marylanders who feel isolated.
She hopes the steps Maryland has taken — closing schools and many businesses, ordering people to stay home — will pay off and make the sacrifices worthwhile.
“It’s very, very intense and it’s really unparalleled,” Phillips said. “And I think we’re making a difference.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.