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Harford health department gives update on COVID response, new initiatives; official notes stress after Bishai’s firing

Presentations during Tuesday′s Harford County Council meeting went well over two hours before public comments began, but questions about the immediate future of the county’s health department remain.

Marcy Austin, Harford’s acting health officer, kicked off the meeting with a department update. During the biannual presentation, Austin offered insight into the county’s continuing COVID-19 response, from testing to vaccination efforts.

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Austin spoke confidently about a number of new programs in the works, highlighting the services being offered at the 1 N. Main Family Health Center, which opened in September.

Some services offered at the center include comprehensive dental care, gynecological health services including pre- and postpartum services, and a behavioral health clinic equipped to care for youth and adolescents.

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The health of minorities in the community is also in focus; the department hired two community outreach health professionals who work primarily in Edgewood and Aberdeen. These employees have assisted with scheduling vaccine appointments, and partnered with leaders and places of worship around the county to jump-start a variety of new initiatives.

But, Austin confirmed, there remains no replacement for the county’s health officer; the position has been vacant since Dr. David Bishai was terminated in late October.

Additionally, the director of administration resigned a number of weeks ago, leaving the department’s information technology director to perform both roles. The department also hopes to hire two more community health workers for its new minority initiatives.

“Over the last 20 months due to this pandemic, the health department has been launched into the limelight for better or worse. Staff have been pushed to the limit to do their regular work while also doing COVID work,” Austin said during the meeting.

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When asked by council member Andre V. Johnson, District 1, about current weaknesses, Austin pointed to a struggle in making staff feel safe returning to work, and to the loss of staff members who have not yet been replaced.

Austin, who was deputy health officer before Bishai’s dismissal, and a temporary physician are leading the county’s Department of Health through what they are considering a “emergency transition period.” A nurse practitioner, who serves as the director of clinical services, is acting as the medical spokesperson during this transition.

The process of selecting a new Health Officer begins with the formation of a search committee.

Present on the committee will be representatives from the Maryland Department of Health, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, Harford County Public Schools, the County Council personnel committee, and the Public Health community at-large.

When the final candidate is identified, the committee recommends them to the state Department of Health; Dennis R. Schrader, the Secretary of Health, then approves or denies the nomination.

According to the Harford County Health Department, the committee has yet to be formed.

When reached for comment, County Council President Patrick Vincenti told The Aegis he is “confident in the work the health department is doing and in the care they are providing for the people of Harford County.”

In addition to COVID, other county health department highlights that Austin noted were the Annual World Rabies Day Vaccination Clinic on Sept. 25, the Harford County Community Health Needs Assessment, and the successful completion of an agency review to keep its accreditation status.

The Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association also presented its annual update to the council. According to the agency’s data, fire and EMS call activity were down 4 and 2.8 percent, respectively in fiscal year 2020 compared to 2019. Of the calls placed to emergency services in 2020, 75% were for EMS responses; 61% of the responses required advanced life support be administered. This is similar to data from the previous year.

A key point of the association’s presentation was to outline a shortage of personnel, and the impact that staffing has on fire and EMS services’ ability to provide timely care.

In other business, a Harford Living Treasure Proclamation was presented to Richard C. Slutzky, who taught and served as wrestling coach for 31 years at Aberdeen High School and served on the County Council for 16 years. Multiple people spoke on how important a role Slutzky played in their lives.

A total of 22 people registered to speak during public comment. As the ninth speaker was approaching the podium, Vincenti observed someone heckling the speaker, and promptly called a brief recess, he told The Aegis. In an effort to ensure everyone felt safe and welcome to provide comment, Vincenti had the remaining speakers return to address the council individually.

This was the third week in a row public comment became contentious. Last week, during the Nov. 9 meeting, three people were kicked out during the public comment period. During the Nov. 2 meeting, more than 60 people spoke, requiring the council vote to extend the meeting beyond 11 p.m.

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