Public health director’s resignation fits national trend

Public health director’s resignation fits national trend
David Faries

When Audrain County Health Department administrator Dr. Sandra Hewlett announced her resignation last week, she became part of a national trend that has left many local and state public health departments scrambling.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging large swaths of the nation, at least 50 top state and local public health officials across the country have resigned, decided to retire or been dismissed from their position. And that number – compiled by Kaiser Health News Service and the Associated Press – was from early August, their most recent report. At the time it was startling news. Since then, the notion of a public health official stepping down has become commonplace.

WIC and clinical services coordinator and registered nurse Becky Wieberg, and communicable disease program lead and registered nurse Katie Swaim will both act as interim administrators as the health department board undertakes a search for a new department administrator.

While the ACHD did not provide a reason for Hewlett’s departure after five and a half years at the helm, a national pattern is developing. In some cases, friction between a public health director and politicians over coronavirus regulations led to resignations or firings. Shelter in place, mask requirements or other orders brought threats against a few officials. But stress – even burnout – caused many to back away from their duties.

Public health departments are charged with overseeing a number of services, including assessing resources, needs and outcomes for the local population, food safety, daycare inspection, the WIC program, immunizations and more. COVID-19 put additional pressure on departments, as they have to address testing, contact tracing and social distancing measures, among other aspects of the pandemic. ACHD is currently preparing for the arrival of flu season, as well.

Public health departments have to deal with the added burden, even as their own resources wane. According to the Kaiser/AP report, spending on local public health departments dropped 18 percent since 2010. And since the 2008 recession, more than 38,000 state and local public health positions have been eliminated.

As a result of the pandemic, Congress allocated $2.4 billion toward public health programs. And in April the Centers for Disease Control released $631 million directed specifically to state and local departments to aid contract tracing efforts. However, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security estimates that $3.6 billion is needed for contract tracing alone.
Testing – and vaccines, when they arrive – is another issue.

And there are more headaches. Missouri’s official tracking dashboard reported a spike of 5,020 new coronavirus cases in the state on Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, state officials discovered a “database extract error” that reportedly inflated that number.


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