After two finalists declined offers, county officials are still searching for a new health officer to fill the vacancy created when Dr. Travis Gayles left in September 2021.

James Bridgers, who was deputy health officer under Gayles, has served in an acting role since then.

County officials said on Wednesday that both finalists cited the current political environment surrounding public health as one reason they did not accept the health officer position.

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said that includes both the local environment and national political atmosphere surrounding health officers and similar officials. 

“Dr. Gayles faced hate speech directly … and so we’re not immune to it locally,” Stoddard said. “But I think part of the national tenor has influenced that because … much of the public health infrastructure spending is funded by federal dollars. And so you may see future politics involved in what’s funded, and how it’s funded or restrictions that are placed on public health, at the federal level.”

Gayles could not immediately be reached for comment via two phone calls or text message on Wednesday.

He has recently testified during bill hearings before state lawmakers in Annapolis about the abuse he experienced as a health officer, and spoke in support of further protections for people in those jobs.

County Executive Marc Elrich told reporters Wednesday that the health officer vacancy is not unique to Montgomery County. He agreed with Gayles that there should be protections for those who might face political opposition.

“Unless that person’s off the reservation and suggesting people drink Clorox in order to kill the virus … I think health officers should be better protected,” Elrich said. 

He and Stoddard added that it will be important to hire a health officer who not only deals with the coronavirus pandemic, but also the entire public health system, ranging from hospitals to community health partners. There is a need to help people with pre-existing conditions and other health issues, they said. 

Stoddard said the county wants to find the right person, and there are many capable health officials serving Montgomery County now.

“I do think it’s important to have a health officer from a leadership perspective … and to coordinate those activities more effectively,” Stoddard said. “But at the end of the day … there is a lot of public health expertise in Montgomery County, that has been probably battle-tested more than we prefer that they were in the last two years.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com