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Health officer harassment: When the best medicine faces the worst public response | COMMENTARY

Dr. David Bishai, 60, an adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, was terminated last month from his position as Harford County Health Officer without explanation. October 27, 2021. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun).
Dr. David Bishai, 60, an adjunct professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, was terminated last month from his position as Harford County Health Officer without explanation. October 27, 2021. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

For most of us, local public health officers in Maryland have always presented as a knowledgeable and caring presence in their communities. Who reminds people to get their flu shots? Who gently recommends annual checkups and blood pressure screening, or weight loss and smoking cessation programs? That would be the individuals running the county health departments. They fight addiction, heart disease, cancer and other killers with a fervor, but they also spearhead basic outreach campaigns that seek to bring preventive medicine to families who may lack traditional health resources.

They’re hardly controversial. That is until they became the targets of antagonism, conspiracy theories, ridicule and worse.

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One of the negative side effects of COVID-19 has been the demonization of those individuals who are attempting to protect society from a deadly pandemic. Public health officials have been on the front line in this regard. The manner in which one of this nation’s preeminent public health leaders, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, has been misrepresented by the science-averse and targeted by far-right political actors has been shameful, and it’s trickled down to regional officials. In Maryland, the hostility directed at local public health officers has been so appalling that there’s a move afoot to broaden state law to protect them from intimidation.

Put yourself for a moment in the white coat of former Montgomery County health officer Travis Gayles, who resigned from his post after he received what has been described as a “torrent” of hate mail, social media attacks and threats. Or then there is the dismissal of David Bishai in Harford County, who dared offer straight talk about COVID, mask-wearing and vaccinations. Neither the Harford County Health Department nor the County Council has given much reason for his firing, but it’s clear by the cheering from those against “government overreach” that he’s another notch on the anti-vaccine belt.

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Meanwhile, this week the rubber hits the road on a lot of vaccine mandates. Local hospitals have done a remarkable job getting as many as 99% of their staff to get their vaccinations, but even so hundreds of workers at the University of Maryland Medical System could soon lose their jobs for failing to comply. That’s unfortunate for them, for UMMS and for the communities they serve, but it’s not an unreasonable approach to dealing with a deadly pandemic.

Matters could prove just as rough in Baltimore City Public Schools, where slightly more than 10% of the system’s 10,000 employees have not gotten their shots. City schools can’t afford to lose educators and support staff, but the city can’t afford to ignore COVID-19, either. Employees must be given every chance to comply with vaccine mandates and offered the best medical advice, so they aren’t misled by conspiracy theories, politics or fearmongering. Same with police and firefighters who face similar deadlines. But ultimately, a mandate is a mandate. Without consequences, it means nothing. You lack a vaccination card, you get a pink slip. That’s why they’re working.

We live in uncivil times. Hostilities that once simmered in private are spread across social media like wildfires. Facebook stokes public anger for profit, as a whistleblower revealed last month. Truth is irrelevant. Conspiracy theories gets clicks and likes. Medical science may be at its most advanced, but public understanding of it seems to be regressing. Gen. George Washington famously required his soldiers to be inoculated against smallpox in 1777, and they complied. Historians do not report of any attempt to threaten his life (or even post whatever the 18th century equivalent of a nasty tweet might be) in response. It’s a different world 244 years later.

We hope front line workers, including health officers, will weather this storm even as a return to normalcy is in sight. But it’s still prudent to protect their ability to speak honestly and candidly about health matters going forward or we may find our “best” public health advice is shaped as much by misinformed public opinion as it is by science. That’s why an expanded anti-intimidation law should be high on the Maryland General Assembly’s to-do list in January. Doctors and other medical professionals sometimes have to give unhappy news. Better to hear it and be guided by it, than to reject it out of ignorance, fear or perceived political advantage.

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Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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