Berrien Co. health officials resign, citing ‘politicization of public health’ during pandemic ⋆

Two Berrien County Health Department officials announced Monday they are resigning, saying the politicization of the pandemic has made it impossible for them to do their jobs.

Acting Health Officer Courtney Davis and Communications Manager Gillian Conrad will leave the health department in Southwest Michigan on Nov. 3 and Oct. 29, respectively. 

“I make this decision with many emotions – serving the residents of Berrien County for nearly five years and supporting local public health infrastructure have been among my greatest honors,” Davis said in a Monday press release. “However, with the politicization of public health during the pandemic, I can no longer effectively do my job and serve the community with its health and safety always at the forefront.”

Conrad also cited the pandemic’s toll as her reason for leaving.

“It has been a privilege and honor to serve the residents of Berrien County, and I am incredibly proud of all the countless ways our department has contributed to improving the health of our community,” Conrad said in the same release. “What our team accomplished during the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing less than extraordinary; however, the exhaustive work of the past 19 months has taken a significant toll on my mental, emotional and physical health. For the sake of my own health and the health of my family, I need to step away.”

In a social media post, Conrad said she has “watched my beloved field of public health become politicized and my esteemed colleagues belittled, berated, and at times, threatened.

“The tension between the values of public health and the conflicting political structures local health departments have to function within have created contentious environments, lacking in the support that officials need to be successful and effective,” Conrad continued. “The demonstrated compassion and perseverance of the dedicated women and men working at health departments across the country is incomparable; they deserve our eternal thanks for what they have endured during these unprecedented times.”

The departure of the two officials comes as public health workers across the state and country face vitriolic criticism and death threats over COVID-19 health mandates, such as school mask requirements that help to prevent the spread of the virus. On Monday, the New York Times reported that “public health agencies have seen a staggering exodus of personnel, many exhausted and demoralized, in part because of abuse and threats.” 

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said Tuesday that eight health officers and nine medical directors at local health departments in the state have left their positions during the pandemic, including the two Berrien County officials. Those departures have come mostly as retirements, the spokesman said. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, at the end of October left her position to take a job with CVS. Khaldun told WDIV-TV Monday that she has “been the subject of security threats in my role, but you know that certainly is not the reason why I chose to take this new position with CVS Health.”

Khaldun told the Detroit television station that she has been shocked to see the public outrage over COVID health measures.

“What has surprised me the most, not just about the COVID-19 response in Michigan but across the country, is just how much somewhat simple public health measures that would keep people health and, quite frankly, alive have become so political and caused so many people to be upset.”

Berrien County Health Department Acting Health Officer Courtney Davis | Screenshot

The Berrien County Health Department announced on Sept. 1 that it was implementing a school mask mandate in an effort to mitigate the spread of the virus. At that time, health department officials noted that, like everywhere else in the state and country, the highly contagious Delta variant composed the majority of the region’s COVID cases and the county was averaging 37 news cases per day. Over the past week, Berrien County is averaging about 18 new COVID cases a day, according to data from DHHS.

The CDC reports that Berrien County continues to have a high level of COVID transmission and says on its website that “everyone should wear a mask in public indoor settings” to mitigate the spread of the virus. There have been a total of 16,815 total COVID cases and 308 deaths in Berrien County since the start of the pandemic. 

Following the mask mandate, Berrien health officials faced protests and public outrage at government meetings. Three families filed a lawsuit against the Berrien County Health Department over the mask mandate. On Sept. 29, the health department announced it was “being forced to rescind” the mask order “or face a loss of nearly $1.5 million in the budget.” 

The budget concerns were due to Republican state lawmakers inserting boilerplate language into the Fiscal Year 2022 state budget that threatened to cut funding from health departments if they implemented mask orders for children. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said while signing the budget that the GOP language was unconstitutional and not enforceable, but departments across the state still ended up revoking mask mandates over fears that their budgets would be slashed.

Although Gov. Whitmer stated … that this language was ‘unconstitutional,’ Berrien County legal counselors have advised it stands until proven otherwise in a court of law,” the health department wrote in a Sept. 29 press statement.

“The Berrien County Health Department cannot risk losing these essential dollars, which fund vital community programs and services such as immunizations, infectious disease control, sexually transmitted disease control and prevention, hearing screening, vision services, food protection, public water supply, private groundwater supply and on-site sewage management,” the department said in the same statement.

The resignations also come as Benton Harbor, which is in Berrien County, is facing a water crisis; state officials have advised residents to not drink their water due to elevated levels of lead. Whitmer last week announced a plan to replace the city’s lead pipes within 18 months.

R. McKinley Elliott, chair of the Berrien County Board of Commissioners, said the county has begun a search to replace both Davis and Conrad. Davis replaced the department’s former health officer, Nicki Britten, after she left for a position at Spectrum Health in July.

“We appreciate and value the contributions of Courtney Davis and Gillian Conrad especially during this very difficult time, as well as their commitment to our community,” Elliott said in Monday’s press statement. “We wish them all the best in their future endeavors.”

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authored by Anna Gustafson
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2021%2F10%2F19%2Fberrien-co-health-officials-resign-citing-politicization-of-public-health-during-pandemic%2F

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