2021 | Government

UPDATED: With health officer stepping down, Montgomery County, state look for replacement

Gayles wrote in letter that resignation takes effect Sept. 12

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Dr. Travis Gayles, the county's health officer, announced his resignation in an email Wednesday morning, effective Sept. 12.

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This story was updated at 9:50 a.m. on Aug. 18, 2021, to add comments from County Executive Marc Elrich. It was updated at 10:40 a.m. to include comments from County Council President Tom Hucker. This story also was updated at 7:10 p.m. to add more comments and details.

With Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, stepping down in the middle of next month, Montgomery County and state health officials now must work together to find a replacement. 

Gayles resigned as the county’s health officer Wednesday, effective Sept. 12.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health, confirmed in a text message that Gayles resigned. He had been the county’s top health official since September 2017.

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said Montgomery County officials must nominate a candidate for the state’s Secretary of Health to consider. 

“The county is responsible for the recruitment of this position unless they ask for assistance from MDH. We thank Dr. Gayles for his service,” Gischlar wrote in an email.

There was no indication of whether Gayles is leaving for another job or if he had another reason. He did not return a phone call or text message from Bethesda Beat on Wednesday.

In a news briefing with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, County Executive Marc Elrich said Gayles, for his work during the pandemic, would go down as one of the most important leaders in the county’s history. 

“Dr. Gayles has also been a profile in courage,” Elrich said. “He’s gone through hell over the last 18 months, and the first thing is he’s had to fight with his boss, who’s the governor. He advocated policies that often were opposed to what the governor was advocating. … To be at odds with your boss is not always an easy thing to do.”

He emphasized that a replacement needs to follow “what the science and data show,” like Gayles did throughout the pandemic.

“We’re not going backwards, and we’re not going to a health officer that doesn’t respect the science and data,” Elrich said. “If I could clone Dr. Gayles, I would.”

Gayles has played a prominent role in the county during much of the coronavirus pandemic, including a feud with Gov. Larry Hogan over Gayles’ decision to close in-person instruction for private schools. Gayles later rescinded that order.

Six families with children in private schools filed a lawsuit last summer stating Gayles did not have the authority to issue that mandate. The lawsuit was dismissed by U.S. District Judge George Hazel last month. 

He also was the recipient of threatening emails during the pandemic. He told Bethesda Beat last September that while there weren’t any direct threats, many of the messages he received were racist or homophobic. 

Gayles recalled one particular email in that interview.

“I think the language said something to the effect of, ‘Your parents should be embarrassed by you’ and, ‘Your father would be embarrassed but you know, let’s not be getting it twisted, you don’t even know who your father is,” Gayles said. “It’s just that kind of crazy. How do you even put that into writing or do it?” 

Gayles faced criticism from some County Council members over certain responses to the pandemic. In July, Council Members Hans Riemer and Gabe Albornoz sent a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich, saying there needed to be a better testing strategy. They suggested using the county’s fire stations to increase testing capacity.

Elrich and Gayles, however, disagreed. Gayles told council members his colleagues were working hard to increase testing capacity.

“The notion that we don’t have a strategy is absolutely false,” he told the council last July.

Gayles was featured in a “60 Minutes” interview in February about the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, in which he was critical of the federal government’s progress.

He also was at the helm for the county’s most recent order reinstating an indoor mask mandate.

His resignation to Elrich and the County Council on Wednesday morning says:

“I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve the residents of Montgomery County for the past 4 years, including through the past 18 months related to Covid-19. It has been an honor to work alongside you all and provide health related guidance across a host of important issues. Thank you for creating a space for science to be heard and embraced, and for advocating for equitable access to improved health outcomes for all of our residents.

“I will work closely with Dr. Crowel and other appropriate county staff to facilitate a smooth transition and contingency plan. Thank you again for your continued support and I look forward to speaking with you all soon upon my return.”

According to Anderson, Gayles is on vacation and is scheduled to return to the office on Monday.

James Bridgers, the county’s deputy health officer, told reporters Wednesday that Gayles is currently vacationing in France — the reason the email was sent around 3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. 

Bridgers added that since he has a public health background and is a research scientist — and not a medical degree — he cannot be the county’s health officer, per state regulations and the county charter. 

County Council President Tom Hucker said in an interview that Wednesday morning’s email was his first notice that Gayles had resigned.

“I’m very sorry to learn of Dr. Gayles’ resignation, but I’m very grateful for his guidance and leadership through the worst health crisis in 100 years,” Hucker said. “I’m grateful for his insistence in following the data and science.”

Hucker praised Gayles for his work on closing the racial equity gap countywide, whether it be with testing or vaccine distribution. His overall work during the pandemic has been exemplary, Hucker added.

“He’s the central reason we have one of the best responses in the nation,” Hucker said.

As of Wednesday, Montgomery County had 93.8% of its residents older than 12 with at least one vaccination shot and 85.1% fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The county was the last jurisdiction in Maryland to fully reopen, as Gayles and colleagues implemented a three-tier reopening system for businesses and government based on vaccination rates.  

Elrich said in a statement that Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, will immediately work with the state Department of Health on filling Gayles’ position.

Gayles’ imminent departure marks another senior official in the Elrich administration leaving during this past year.

Caroline Sturgis, a former assistant chief administrative officer, left last month. She was replaced by Earl Stoddard, who previously headed the county’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Three of the county’s five regional service directors also recently retired, while a fourth took a new position in Elrich’s administration.

Hucker said he didn’t know how so many senior officials were leaving, but called it an “exodus of senior leadership.” Exit interviews could help figure out why, he added.

“It’s a troubling question that should be asked,” Hucker said.

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