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Dr. David Bishai: Ousted Harford County health officer seeks transparency from County Council about firing | COMMENTARY

At the Nov. 2 meeting of Harford County Council, several citizens asked council members to explain why they chose to terminate the employment of the health officer. Council said publicly that it was a “personnel matter.”

The only personnel matter that I know of is that in addition to giving the citizens of Harford County 260 hours of unpaid nights and weekend overtime, I also chose to meet in July with my four Johns Hopkins public health doctoral students as part of research into successful COVID-19 control in U.S. counties. This is research that I told the County Council I was committed to and was described on the health department website.

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I resigned as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University in 2020 and never received side payments to meet with these students nor to conduct this research. As a physician, my Hippocratic oath requires that I pass the healing arts to the next generation. And teaching new workers is one of the essential functions of a health department.

I had cleared secondary employment with the State Ethics Commission and was set to start secondary employment in August, but never started it. If this “personnel issue” is the reason I was terminated, then the council should say so.

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If they had other questions about my performance as a scientist, physician and health officer, they never attempted to discuss this with me. My abrupt termination amid a smoke screen to cover political motivation might be permissible treatment for an at-will employee of the state, but it is at odds with transparent governance.

I want Marylanders to know that I would be happy to answer any and all questions about my conduct at a public meeting of the council.

As a doctor, it is not in my nature to abandon a patient, so if a reinstatement were offered, I would consider it.

I was moving the amazing staff of the health department in a new direction based on an original inquiry into the reasons Harford County’s life expectancy and racial disparities in health had been stagnant from 2009 to 2019. I am disappointed that the current leadership of the health department has not reached out to me to establish continuity in the programs I had started.

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I fear that the “new direction” the current leadership is taking is actually the “old direction” that kept the talented members of the department from reaching their full potential. The old regime was rife with favoritism and closed-door deals.

Just last week in an inexplicable self-lobotomy, the health department’s current chiefs aborted a Dec. 1 start for the department’s only full time epidemiologist. The candidate was top notch, fully financed by state COVID-19 funds and would have given county residents the epidemic intelligence needed for new challenges in 2022.

Harford County still has so many public health and environmental problems that have been unaddressed. The county deserves a health officer with scientific literacy and training in public health to continue the progress toward goals of health and well-being shared by every resident.

I want the residents to know that I for one would welcome an open inquiry into my conduct of the Health Department, and I wish the Board of Health agreed to be more transparent.

Dr. David Bishai is the former health officer for Harford County.

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