As Legislature Advances MACo Initiative to Protect Health Officers, Montgomery Co. Affirms Support

Maryland General Assembly and Montgomery County moved to protect local health officials against threats and intimidation, which have been on-the-rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, March 21, on “Crossover Day,” the Maryland Senate passed a narrowed version of MACo’s 2022 legislative initiative to protect local officials against threats and intimidation. The next day, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a resolution led by Council Vice President Evan Glass affirming Montgomery County’s support for public health officials, including the next Public Health Officer and Chief of Public Health Services. The resolution also calls for unity, civil discourse and reaffirms the county’s commitment to making public health decisions based on science and data.

A county press release highlighted the importance and timeliness of the resolution:

Public health officials have kept residents safe during the pandemic and the harassment they have endured has been unprecedented in its scope and nature. During his pandemic leadership, Montgomery County’s previous health officer, Dr. Travis Gayles, received threats to his safety, in addition to a stream of racist and homophobic messages. He left his position in September 2021 and the county immediately began a nationwide search to replace him. To date, two candidates for the vacant Public Health Officer position have declined offers of employment citing the public vitriol and concerns for their safety.

“The global pandemic has significantly stressed public health systems around the world and exposed the gaps in health care for underserved and vulnerable populations,” said Gabe Albornoz, Council President and Chair of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee. “Montgomery County is not immune but through the efforts of our public health officials, we are now the most highly vaccinated county in the nation. It is through their guidance and dedication that lives are saved.”

“The type of harassment these officials continue to face is not only harming public discourse, but has become a barrier to hiring well-qualified personnel to serve in these positions,” said Council Vice President Glass. “As the COVID-19 health crisis begins to recede, it is my hope that we can return to a level of civility where individuals can disagree without resorting to taunts and threats of violence. This resolution is one step toward reaffirming support for our public health officials.”

Attacks against local health officials on the rise

In late 2021, The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) pressed the federal government to intervene and protect local public health officials from threats of violence. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these officials have been subject to heightened pressures and scrutiny for actions taken to save lives. The resulting impact has been devastating.

NACCHO reports more than 300 public health department leaders have left their posts throughout the pandemic. In Maryland, two prominent health officers resigned during this same period. MACo’s affiliate, the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, reports threats and harassment to its members have increased in volume and intensity in response to decisions made to protect the public from the COVID-19 virus.

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