A Maryland organization that advocates for county-level needs in the state legislature will push to include local health officers in a law that protects public officials from intimidation.
Michael Sanderson, who directs the Maryland Association of Counties, told members of the Baltimore City Council on Monday that the current laws should be broadened to combat the barrage of intimidation tactics, hateful messages and threats directed at county health officers and commissioners, who have been tasked with steering their jurisdictions’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic since the coronavirus landed in Maryland early last year.
“If you’re threatened as a public official, there’s a state law that makes that a separate crime,” Sanderson told the City Council. “We’ve seen public officials make decisions that make people angry.”
Intimidating a public official is a misdemeanor in Maryland, although the definition of public official is currently limited to elected officials as well as deputy state’s attorneys, assistant state’s attorneys or assistant public defenders.
Sanderson said his association, known as MACO, would like to extend that definition to health officers, who are usually appointed, as well as zoning, code enforcement officers and elections administrators.
“The issues of the last couple years have heightened the argument for a bill like this,” Sanderson said in an interview. “It’s pretty clear that the people entrusted to make decisions in the interest of public health might tick somebody off, and they’re in the same class of employee that Maryland is trying to protect today.”
State lawmakers attempted in 2021 to draft policy specifically to shield health officers from external pressures, but the efforts languished due to procedural setbacks, Sanderson said. The previous attempt, sponsored by State Sen. Ronald Young and State Del. Karen Lewis Young — both Democrats from Frederick County — would have created a separate law prohibiting threats against a health officer or actions that interfere with their job duties.
But the bill was introduced relatively late during the last session, Sanderson said, making it difficult to move forward.
“It’s not that there was a good, honest debate and it got rejected,” he said. “It never got to see the light of day.”
Renewed consideration of health officer protections in Annapolis comes amid the departures of three local health officers since September. In Montgomery County, County Executive Marc Elrich described Dr. Travis Gayles’ resignation as an effect of “a torrent of hate and vitriol from segments of the public, including receiving threats on his safety, racist and homophobic emails, and social media attacks.”
In Carroll County, health officer Ed Singer stepped down last week for unspecified reasons, though those close to him described his departure as one motivated by his inability to please all parties.
And in Harford County, the County Council last month dismissed Dr. David Bishai, who just took the post in January. Neither the council nor the state health department will comment publicly on the decision, but Bishai said it fit within a pattern of resistance he faced on the job.
Nationally, health officers have vacated posts in droves since the onset of the pandemic, citing burnout, threats on their lives and a lack of support for the public health industry. The National Association of City and County Health Officers has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to hold to account those making threats against public health officials and department staff.
Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.