Montgomery County top health officer has received derogatory, racist messages over COVID-19 response

Montgomery County top health officer has received derogatory, racist messages over COVID-19 response

Homophobic slurs included, Gayles says

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Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles poses for a photo at the Dennis Avenue Health Center in Silver Spring.

Briana Adhikusuma

Montgomery County’s top health official said he has received derogatory and racist messages from community members frustrated about his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Travis Gayles characterized the messages as “concerning” and said in some cases he has talked to the Montgomery County Police Department about the possible need for security protection.

Since the state began its reopening process in May, Montgomery County, under Gayles’ direction, has routinely chosen to move more slowly, citing high rates of community spread and a need to be more cautious to decrease the number of new cases.

His caution, and his push to keep all private school buildings closed in the fall, have been met with public backlash from critics.

The vitriol has also been directed at Gayles privately, he said during an interview with Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine on Tuesday. (The full interview will be published in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine.) “… There have been some [messages] that have been borderline, and we needed to keep an eye out on that,” Gayles said.

Gayles, 41, said he hasn’t received any threats, but that many of the messages have contained racist or homophobic slurs.

Many messages have alleged that Gayles, who is Black, was “a diversity hire” and is not qualified for the job, he said.

Then-County Executive Ike Leggett appointed Gayles as health officer in 2017.

Previously, Gayles was the chief medical officer for the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Administration, within the Washington, D.C., government. He has also served as the director of HIV testing and prevention for the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago/Northwestern.

Gayles received his bachelor’s degree in public policy studies from Duke University. He obtained his Ph.D. in community health and his doctor of medicine degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

One critic told him his parents “should be embarrassed by you,” but went on to say, “You don’t even know who your father is,” a racist stereotype of Black families.

“How do you even put something like that into writing?” Gayles said.

He said messages that have spurred conversations with law enforcement involved threats to show up at his or his staff members’ homes to protest his decisions.

A spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department could not be reached for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

The most hateful and frequent messages came in two instances — when the state announced it would move into the first phase of reopening and Montgomery County did not fall in line, and when he issued an order barring private schools from reopening for in-person classes in the fall. Gayles said he received an average of 50-75 hateful messages in the days and weeks following those decisions.

Gov. Larry Hogan responded to the private schools order with a directive that a county health officer can’t make such a blanket decision.

Soon after, Gayles issued a second order attempting the same mandate for private school buildings to stay closed, but he rescinded his order after receiving more pushback from the state.

Gayles said he feels no animosity toward the governor over the private schools debate. But, he said, it is frustrating because the county used science and data to make the decision and “that hasn’t been heeded.”

Gayles said, in general, he feels his decisions have been politicized, despite making them from an “objective, nonpartisan, apolitical perspective.”

“We’re acting on fundamental, core principles, so we know any of the decisions or guidance we put out there may not be popular, but it’s not about being popular — it’s about sticking to the facts and sticking to the data and executing as much as we can from that,” Gayles said. “At the end of the day, I … stand by every piece of guidance we have put forward.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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