Dr. David Bishai, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a specialist in public health, is Harford County’s new health officer.
Bishai was named after the county’s search committee put him forward for the County Council. The council then forwarded the committee’s recommendation to the Maryland Department of Health, which green-lighted the appointment.
Set to officially begin his duties Jan. 1, Bishai said he hopes to share the Harford County Health Department’s story of success — it is one of only a few accredited health departments in the nation, which former health officer Dr. Russell Moy led it to. Beyond its successes, Bishai said, are the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which motivated him to take the job.
Though he has studied public health for years, he thought he could do the most good at the health department.
Harford County, along with the rest of the state, has been experiencing a surge in cases. On Wednesday, the county added 131 new coronavirus cases its positivity rate reached 9.32% and the seven-day moving average case rate was 35.79 per 100,000 people — the highest level since the pandemic began.
Key to the department’s efforts to fight the coronavirus, Bishai said, are laying plans for the eventual distribution of a vaccine and collecting its own data on health metrics. The state does offer coronavirus data, but Bishai sees an opportunity for Harford’s own department to become less reliant on the state and get a closer look at its ground-level issues.
It is also important for county residents to understand how the vaccine would be distributed — first to medical workers and those who are at most risk of a serious infection.
While COVID-19 is the most pressing issue, Bishai said attention must be paid to other services the health department renders. The department runs sexual health programs, anti-smoking campaigns and addiction resources among other public health initiatives.
The department is responsible for a wide variety of issues that the coronavirus has overshadowed, but they are just as critical during the pandemic as before, he said.
“This [pandemic] has revealed that so many pieces of public health have to be maintained,” he said. “We have the burden that we have to address now; we cannot fall behind on all these other important priorities.”
Even some environmental issues like drinking water quality are the province of the health department. Bishai said the department’s strength is its ability to convene people to identify and solve problems, communication he intends to continue during his tenure as the health officer.
But with a multitude of programs to manage, the challenge becomes flexibility, Bishai said, for all health departments — not exclusively Harford’s. They tend to suffer from compartmentalization, where funds allocated to solving one public health issue are not diverted to another exigency when needed, which can make departments slow to adjust, as in the case in the opioid epidemic that swept the U.S.
“Categorical funding streams create inertia that can make public health departments less flexible,” he said. “As the opioid epidemic came on, state and local health departments could not shift sufficient resources to address it. Our system creates a challenge to stay funded while able to adapt to emerging new problems.”
Bishai has been a professor at Johns Hopkins University for 24 years, teaching courses in public health. He got his MD from the University of California San Diego Medical School in 1987 and a master’s degree in public health from the University of California Los Angeles that same year. In 1996, he received a PhD from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
As a medical student weighing his options, Bishai decided to go into public health based on a simple calculation: how many people could he treat and help in each medical discipline. Public health net out the highest, he said.
"If you work in public health, you can change the health of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people,” he said.
County Council President Patrick Vincenti said he was impressed with Bishai’s experience and background in public health. Originally the pool of applicants was winnowed down to six from over 80, Vincenti said. By law, the health officer or his or her deputy health officer, must be a physician, which Bishai is.
“We wanted a qualified doctor that we feel fits our needs and would work well with the dedicated team we have at the health department now under Ms. [Marcy] Austin’s lead," Vincenti said. “We feel we have found that person.”
Austin, the county’s deputy health officer, has been the acting health officer since Moy retired Sept. 1.
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Vincenti said he saw the potential for Harford County to work more closely with Johns Hopkins University, and Bishai said he brings his professional network to the job with him, encompassing hundreds of public health specialists. He would further like to open the department up to high school and college students who wish to see the inner-workings of public health and offer internships for those interested.