Dr. David Bishai, health officer at the Harford County Health Department who assumed the position in January at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, has been terminated.
Bishai, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health adjunct professor with degrees in medicine and economics, said he was not given a reason for his firing, which happened last week. He said he was called to an in-person meeting with officials from the Maryland Department of Health, who informed him that the Harford County Council voted to remove him, and state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader approved the vote.
“The County Council has many citizens who speak against me and hold up signs calling for me to get fired,” Bishai said Tuesday evening. “They said the County Council wants to move in a new direction.”
While Bishai said he was not given a reason Friday for his firing, he said he had faced a request to resign from one county politician over unpopular public health guidance he gave this summer.
Also, he said he was disciplined once this year for mentoring students during his county workday and was notified at one point of unspecified complaints regarding his “leadership style.”
The Harford County health officer is an employee of the state, but also answers to the County Council, which serves as the jurisdiction’s local health authority. The council can recommend the officer’s removal for the state health secretary’s consideration.
County health spokeswoman Molly Mraz confirmed that Bishai is no longer with the department, but forwarded all other inquiries about the matter to the state health department. Deputy Health Officer Marcy Austin will serve as acting health officer, Mraz added.
Andy Owen, a Maryland Department of Health spokesman, said the department does not comment on specific personnel matters.
County Council President Patrick Vincenti, a Republican, said he could not comment on what he described as a confidential personnel matter, but emphasized that Bishai was an employee of the state health department.
And Cindy Mumby, a spokeswoman for Republican County Executive Barry Glassman, said the health officer falls under the County Council’s purview, not the executive’s.
“The county executive has no role in their employment matters,” Mumby said in an email. “Nonetheless, County Executive Glassman appreciates Dr. Bishai’s work through the pandemic.”
Bishai’s departure from the health department comes amid a retention crisis at all levels of the public health workforce, including in Maryland. Health officers in Montgomery and Carroll counties have resigned in recent weeks, citing intense pressure, opposition from residents and even threats made against their lives regarding their work.
In a Facebook post Friday, We the People of Maryland, a group followed by some 1,200 social media users that advocates for “Americans who are frustrated by government overreach,” called Bishai’s departure a “victory.”
“Great job to everyone that stands up and fights for this county,” the post reads. “There is strength in numbers. Hold the line Patriots!”
Health officials, especially those at local health departments, have been tasked with tall orders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the beginning of 2020. In addition to standing up COVID-19 testing hubs, directing contact tracing workforces, setting guidelines for masking and reopening businesses, and running vaccination clinics, they face the routine public health duties, such as mitigating as infectious diseases, food insecurity and environmental health hazards.
Small budgets and limited staffing have further complicated the work. But Bishai said the role spoke to his interests.
“I have studied public health around the world, and I wanted to bring that knowledge to America, and so I was called to serve for the reason every American wants to serve their country,” he said.
Salaries range for health officer positions in the state but generally amount to well over six figures. Bishai was set to earn $220,000 in 2021, according to the latest state salary records.
Bishai said a Harford County politician previously asked him to resign for guidance he issued to a school marching band that hoped to perform over the July 4 holiday. He recommended that unvaccinated students wear masks with slits at the mouth and place bell covers on their instruments to protect others from potentially infectious aerosolized droplets.
“The very best option to control disease would be to include only fully vaccinated students, because vaccines are now known to dramatically reduce the chance of spreading the virus,” Bishai wrote in a guest commentary piece for The Baltimore Sun. “Yet, as a pediatrician and father of a former ‘bandy,’ I knew that excluding unvaxxed children would deny them a lifetime highlight and important social recognition.
“Respect for people regardless of their health choices is the best way to work together to reduce harm.”
Bishai acknowledged that he had been subject to at least one disciplinary matter during his tenure, leading to the health department docking five days’ pay from his salary. He said he was accused of “stealing” time as he mentored some public health students during his workdays without billing them separately. The state health department’s Owen declined to comment on the disciplinary measure.
Bishai also said he had received complaints about his “leadership style,” but said he had not gotten specific feedback into those allegations.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, a former Baltimore health commissioner and Howard County health officer, said such complaints can be common in high-stakes management positions.
“It’s way harder than doing a needle exchange or infant mortality reduction,” said Beilenson. “The hardest thing is managing people.”
State Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said she looks forward to the council finding a health leader that “better reflects the values of our community as a whole and doesn’t promote discriminatory policies against children in our school system.”
Arikan cited the July 4 performance guidance, as well as mandatory testing requirements for unvaccinated students seeking to participate in sports and homecoming dances, as examples of where Bishai’s interests conflicted with the rest of the county.
“Harford County citizens are moving past the covid-hysteria,” Arikan said in a text message. “We need Health officials that have a sane and tempered approach and that above all respect parental rights and medical autonomy.”
The Harford County charter gives health officers broad powers to preserve public health in the jurisdiction. The position makes recommendations to the County Council, which serves as the local board of health, charged with enforcing and enacting policy.
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The County Council’s powers are also wide-ranging. It’s able to “make any regulations which, in its opinion, are necessary and may, from time to time, amend or repeal such regulations and make new regulations.”
It also has the power to investigate and inquire into all “nuisances,” defined as threats to public health, comfort or property of Harford County citizens. The board may apply restraints, or injunctions, to prevent such nuisances, according to the county charter.
Councilmember Andre Johnson, the lone Democrat, who represents Edgewood, said while he could not comment on the specifics of what happened, he felt that the process that led to Bishai’s departure skewed unfairly against the health officer.
“The politicization of this office is deeply, deeply disturbing to me,” said Johnson, who declined to comment further.
An online petition calling for Bishai’s reinstatement garnered nearly 1,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon. Its author, Harford County parent and scientist Jared DeCoste, said Bishai had been subject to the “vocal anti-science, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine minority in Harford County.”
“The County Council is caving to the pressure of, or even worse, agreeing with, a vocal minority who do not want to listen to the sound public health advice of an internationally respected medical professional,” DeCoste said.
Bishai’s termination went into immediate effect Friday. A new permanent health officer will need to be recommended by the council and approved by the state health secretary.