2022 | Government

County still searching for permanent health officer replacement

James Bridgers has filled in since September, when Travis Gayles left

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Months after Travis Gayles left his post as Montgomery County’s health officer, county officials are still interviewing potential replacements.

James Bridgers, who was deputy health officer under Gayles, has served as acting health officer for the county since September. But Bridgers has said he does not hold the necessary medical certifications to hold the position long-term. 

Maryland law requires that if the health officer in Montgomery County is not a physician, then the deputy health officer must be one. That means that they must have a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Bridgers has neither, and the deputy health officer position has been vacant while he has served as acting health officer.

Gayles’ salary was $229,000 when he resigned. Bridgers currently earns a salary of $179,807. Mary Anderson, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the county is offering up to $250,000 when recruiting for the new health officer. 

Any potential health officer needs to be picked by the county executive, and confirmed by the County Council, then sent to the secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for the appointment, per county and state law.

Montgomery County’s health officer also serves as a deputy state health officer. 

County Council members have asked during recent meetings when a permanent health officer would be hired.

During a weekly news briefing on Wednesday, Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters that health officials are still interviewing a group of potential candidates for the position. 

He did not have a specific timeline, other than that officials are “closer” to deciding on finalists.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has said the county had a final candidate in mind in recent weeks, but the person withdrew their name from consideration. One factor the applicant cited was the political climate surrounding health officers, regarding the decisions they make and the guidance they provide to elected officials.

Gayles said in an interview with Bethesda Magazine in the November-December 2020 edition that he received many emails that either contained racist or homophobic comments because of decisions he made during the coronavirus pandemic. Sometimes, he would receive around 50 to 75 emails like that per day, he said.

Gayles testified during a recent hearing in Annapolis on legislation that would ban threats against hospital workers or public health officials. Offenders could face up to 90 days imprisonment and a $500 maximum fine, if the bill becomes law.

During the hearing, when reading aloud from the letters he received, Gayles said “blank” each time there was an obscenity, Maryland Matters reported. Sometimes, “blank” made up most of the words in a sentence.

Gayles resigned in September and went to work for Hazel Health, the largest telehealth provider for K-12 schools across the United States. Hazel Health is based in San Francisco. 

Crowel told reporters that current health officers in other jurisdictions and other medical professionals are being interviewed for the Montgomery County position — and that the current political climate comes up in those discussions.

“The politics of COVID and the level of divisiveness that sometimes erupts around things like guidance … and mask mandates and vaccination issues that we see all across the country is impacting their decisions,” Crowel said. “They’re looking at that and they’re weighing that carefully.”

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