Federal and state agencies are investigating allegations that the Maryland Department of Health retaliated against a whistleblower after she pushed health officials to notify potentially more than 1,000 patients who may have received spoiled vaccine doses and insisted they remediate problems at vaccine clinics.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the state Department of Budget and Management’s whistleblower division have been conducting interviews, according to the whistleblower and her attorney, related to reports that health officials took punitive action against a deputy director overseeing vaccine and testing compliance by removing her from her position and instructing her not to communicate with colleagues involved in assessing the compliance of clinical operations.
A spokesman for the state budget office said he could not confirm the investigation while the federal agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Jessicah Ray, a licensed clinician, filed complaints with federal and state authorities late last year alleging that she was moved out of the role she had filled since October 2020 — leading clinical teams with more than 60 employees who covered testing and vaccine operations — in retaliation.
Ray said she drew the ire of her superiors when she pressed them to fix compliance issues at state-run and contractor-operated vaccine clinics — including at sites held from July to September by vaccine vendor TrueCare24, a San Francisco-based contractor that compliance officers found mishandled vaccine doses by storing them in unauthorized refrigerators in hotel rooms and cars. TrueCare failed to monitor the doses to ensure they were still effective despite indications that the doses could be compromised.
At the direction of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health department began notifying some 876 patients of the spoiled doses in late December. Ray, however, estimates more than 1,000 doses are in question. The health department says everyone impacted “by the vaccine administration errors were notified by January 13th via every method available, including phone, standard mail, email, and/or text.”
As of Tuesday, 158 individuals who received a TrueCare vaccine had received a supplemental dose, health department spokesman Andy Owen said. The department is still attempting to reach 378 individuals who have not responded “to our multiple, initial attempts at contacting them,” Owen said in an email.
Ray was moved into an advisory role for congregate care services in October, a little more than a week after she submitted a complaint to the Maryland Department of Health’s inspector general alleging that health officials were aware of a slew of noncompliance issues at vaccine clinics — particularly those sites operated by TrueCare — but were not taking steps to address them.
Ray — whose pay has not changed — said in an interview that she’s encumbered by work restrictions that her colleagues are not subject to.
She now performs what she described as “entry-level admin tasks,” but said she’s been barred from attending meetings “that are supposed to be accessible to anybody within my branch” and denied access to shared drives containing data and documents.
Ray also said she’s been excluded from “role-appropriate meetings and projects,” removed from vaccine and testing clinic launches despite having developed the department’s policies regarding clinical operation, and that her colleagues have been admonished for communicating with her.
Emails provided to The Baltimore Sun by Ray show department directors and supervisors scolding Ray when she attempted to work or contact her former colleagues without her supervisor’s express permission. Ray said her colleagues, too, have been directed not to speak with her, and are admonished when they do.
In emails sent in December, Jack Forsythe, director of the health department’s operations branch and Ray’s former supervisor, demanded that Ray answer a series of questions after she attempted to schedule a meeting to discuss developing protocols for how the department should address potentially compromised vaccine doses at vaccination sites.
“Your current duties are restricted to congregate care and what [your supervisor] Robert assigns you to do,” Forsythe told Ray in a December email.
He added: “It is not in your current responsibilities to draft and/or circulate a ‘draft policy document for discussion.’ Again, who gave you permission and/or direction to develop and circulate this draft policy document? Who developed/stood up the clinical operations policy work group? Who authorized you under your current contract to develop policies for this work group? Did [your supervisor] Robert Christian authorize you to work on this policy?”
“Please advise if you had conversations with Robert about this meeting and did he give you expressed [sic] permission to move forward with the meeting and the committee?” Forysthe continued, including several other health officials on the email thread. “If you did, please provide me the day and time Robert agreed with you organizing this meeting. Also, send me copies of the emails where you emailed Robert and he gave you permission.”
The Morning Sun
“My supervisor is essentially my probation officer,” Ray told The Sun.
This month, when Ray sought to discuss concerns about the state’s compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations at coronavirus testing sites, she was told in an email by Tim Tharp, deputy director of operations in the department’s recovery program, that it was “outside the scope of your duties related to your current assignment” and the matter would be assigned to “appropriate staff.”
Tharp directed Ray in a Feb. 4 email to disclose who gave her permission to initiate such discussions by the end of the day.
“You have been directed through your supervisors to conduct tasks only in your assigned area of responsibility and to get supervisory authorization for any self-initiated tasks,” Tharp wrote.
Ray said compliance issues at testing and vaccine clinics go beyond TrueCare, but that the health department has sought to intimidate others from reporting their concerns.
Asked whether top-level health officials had taken any action to address Ray’s allegations of retaliation, Owen said the department would not comment on “personnel matters.”
“I am not the only one experiencing retaliation for protecting public safety,” Ray said in a text message. “Other voices have been scared away from reporting or punished for trying.”