Public comment at Tuesday’s Harford County Council meeting lasted well after 11 p.m. with more than 60 speakers expressing a range of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the termination of the county health officer, Dr. David Bishai, late last month.
Bishai, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health adjunct professor with degrees in medicine and economics, has said he was not given a reason for his firing, which happened two weeks ago. 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 that state Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader approved the vote.
Bishai assumed the position of county health officer in January at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Residents were split on the termination, with many condemning the move and others praising the council for its decision.
“I want to express my profound frustration and deep concern over the recent dismissal” of the health officer, county resident Kim DeCoste said. “This council has the duty to operate without even the appearance of impropriety. ... But this appears to be politically motivated.”
She pointed out there was no reason given for Bishai’s termination.
“Actions of the Council should be transparent,” she said.
Another resident, Benjamin Heiser, said he believes it was professional of the council to not discuss Bishai’s dismissal with the public.
“Thank you to the Council members who voted for the removal,” he said. “We ... can live as citizens of Harford County and not slaves of the state. ... We need to choose a doctor” who will push back against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Melissa Han, mother of a student in Harford County Public Schools, said Bishai’s “views and policies do not reflect” those of the people of Harford County. She called his recommendations regarding masking and vaccinations “unsafe” and “ridiculous.”
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“The health officer was giving recommendations in a very narrow viewpoint,” Dennis Miller said, “But it’s up to you to weigh those. ... Some people didn’t like what he was saying and you shot the messenger. ... There needs to be accountability to us.”
Katie York said she “implores the council to do the right thing” and reinstate Bishai so as not to “derail the headway” the county has made in mitigating the effects of the pandemic.
Harford County parent and scientist Jared DeCoste, who created an online petition calling for Bishai’s reinstatement that has garnered 2,278 signatures as of early Wednesday, said the health officer had been subjected to the “vocal anti-science, anti-mask and anti-vaccine minority in Harford County” and said an anti-science push has been leading decisions.
Several health department volunteers who previously worked with Bishai spoke in support of his reinstatement, pointing to his efforts to listen to and mobilize the community, as well as his passion for public health.
The health officer’s departure from the 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.
County health spokeswoman Molly Mraz said last week that Deputy Health Officer Marcy Austin will serve as acting health officer.
A new permanent health officer will need to be recommended by the council and approved by the state health secretary.