In late October, Harford County was robbed of its world class health officer when Dr. David Bishai was unceremoniously terminated as the County Council chose to “go another direction.” In Harford County, our County Council, which doesn’t have a science degree between the lot of them, acts as the Health Board and has the authority to hire and fire the health officer at will, with the rubber stamp of the Maryland Secretary of Public Health.
Immediately upon hearing the news, I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut. I had followed his work throughout the pandemic and was thoroughly impressed, and let’s just say as a fellow scientist I am not easy to impress. Not only was he on top of his technical game, but he was an effective communicator, which I ultimately think led to his demise.
Dr. Bishai was a different type of health officer, not only did he make sure the health department ran smoothly, he cared about the education of the general public in pertinent health matters. Last school year, as students were getting ready to return to the classroom, he spent many of late nights presenting information to parents about COVID safety measures at Board of Education meetings.
He cared deeply about not just prescribing measures, but taking the public along for the journey. The irony is that some viewed this as indoctrination, when really it is a sign of respect for the public’s intelligence.
I believe that when the council decided to terminate Dr. Bishai, they were placating the vocal crowd that stands for personal freedom and does not want any public health measures that affect their life. However, the council thought this decision would go largely unnoticed and they did not bargain for the nonpartisan pro-science crowd to rise up and become a new loud voice.
The night I learned of Dr. Bishai’s termination, I started a change.com petition, which garnered about 2,000 signatures in its first week. I felt completely validated that my opinion on his performance was not unique. The community at-large feels as if the County Council made a huge mistake.
Over the past few weeks we have made statements at County Council meetings, written countless letters, and had intense media coverage, and the County Council has remained mum.
Surely the council can’t continue to hide under the guise of personnel confidentiality even after Dr. Bishai publicly waived that right last week, can they?
The most disturbing display since Dr. Bishai’s removal happened when the acting health officer, Marcy Austin, gave the department’s update to the County Council last Tuesday. She went out of her way not to say Dr. Bishai’s name, almost like he was Voldemort. She even thanked Dr. Russell Moy for achieving the department’s reaccreditation, which occurred in August 2021, when Dr. Bishai was actually the health officer.
Councilman Tony Giangiordano used a line of questioning that played right into multiple lines of misinformation. He first made a statement asking about who is mandating vaccines for the kids in the state. She never corrected him, but let me say that no one has mandated vaccines for kids in Maryland.
Next, he went on to say that we all know that transmission in kids is extremely low. Again she let the comment slide, however the current transmission rates among children 5-11 outpaces all other age groups
Finally, he asked about boosters, and asked why people need them. She actually did address this question, but told everyone they needed to wait 8 months after their 2nd vaccine to get a booster, but of course that guidance is actually 6 months or 2 months depending on which vaccine
If Tuesday was a job interview, in my mind she failed miserably. She was given multiple softball questions that are incumbent upon the health officer to be able to address without hesitation, and she struck out.
The acting health officer showed that we need a competent person in the role STAT, and that the removal of Dr. Bishai by the County Council amounts to a dereliction of their duty as the Health Board. They were responsible for the protection of Harford County’s health interests in the midst of the greatest health emergency of our lifetimes, and they failed.
The Health Board can no longer be politicized like it was last month in the termination of Dr. Bishai and immediate action needs to be taken to instate an independent nonpartisan Health Board that oversees the Health Department.
Jared DeCoste is a Harford County parent and scientist with a Ph.D. in materials chemistry. He has worked 11 years for the U.S. Army’s Chemical Biological Center in the Protection Division developing materials for masks.