Oct. 27—Dr. David Bishai, health officer at the Harford County Health Department who assumed the position in January at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, was terminated from the position last week, he said late Tuesday evening.
Bishai, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health adjunct professor with degrees in medicine and business, said he was not given a reason for his firing. He said he was called into an in-person meeting with officials from the Maryland Department of Health who informed him that the Harford County Council had voted to remove him, and that Maryland Department of Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader had approved the vote.
"The County Council has many citizens who speak against me and hold up signs calling for me to get fired," Bishai said. "They said the County Council wants to move in a new direction."
Harford County health spokeswoman Molly Mraz confirmed that Bishai is no longer with the department, but forwarded all other inquiries about the matter to the state health department. Andy Owen, a Maryland Department of Health spokesman, said the department does not comment on specific personnel matters.
Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti, a Republican, said he could not comment on what he described as a confidential personnel matter, but emphasized that Bishai was an employee of the state health department, not just the council's.
And Cindy Mumby, a spokeswoman for County Executive Barry Glassman, said the health officer falls under the County Council's purview, not the executive's.
"The county executive has no role in their employment matters," Mumby said in an email. "Nonetheless, County Executive Glassman appreciates Dr. Bishai's work through the pandemic."
Bishai's departure from the health department comes amid a retention crisis at all levels of the public health workforce, including in Maryland. Health officers in Montgomery and Carroll counties have resigned in recent weeks, citing intense pressure, opposition from constituents and even threats made against their lives for their work.
In a Friday Facebook post, We the People of Maryland, a group followed by some 1,200 social media users that advocates for "Americans who are frustrated by government overreach," called Bishai's departure a "victory."
"Great job to everyone that stands up and fights for this county," the post reads. "There is strength in numbers. Hold the line Patriots!"
Health officials, especially those at local health departments, have been tasked with tall orders since the start of the public health crisis at the beginning of 2020. In addition to standing up COVID-19 testing hubs, directing contact tracing workforces, setting guidelines for masking and reopening businesses, and running vaccination clinics, they also face the routine public health duties that persist even absent large-scale emergencies, such as mitigating as infectious diseases, food insecurity and environmental health hazards.
Small budgets and limited staffing have further complicated the work. But Bishai said the role spoke to his interests.
"I have studied public health around the world, and I wanted to bring that knowledge to America, and so I was called to serve for the reason every American wants to serve their country," he said.
Bishai said a Harford County politician previously asked him to resign for guidance he issued to a school marching band that hoped to perform over the July 4 holiday. He recommended that unvaccinated students wear masks with slits at the mouth and cover their instruments with bell covers to protect others from potentially infectious aerosolized droplets.
"The very best option to control disease would be to include only fully vaccinated students, because vaccines are now known to dramatically reduce the chance of spreading the virus," Bishai wrote in a guest commentary piece for The Baltimore Sun in May. "Yet, as a pediatrician and father of a former 'bandy,' I knew that excluding unvaxxed children would deny them a lifetime highlight and important social recognition.
"Respect for people regardless of their health choices is the best way to work together to reduce harm."
Harford County Council member Andre Johnson, the body's lone Democrat who represents Edgewood, said while he could not comment on the specifics of what happened, he felt that the process that led to Bishai's departure skewed unfairly against the health officer.
"The politicization of this office is deeply, deeply disturbing to me," said Johnson, who declined to comment further.
An online petition calling for Bishai's reinstatement garnered more than 500 signatures by late Tuesday. Its author, Harford County parent and scientist Jared DeCoste, said Bishai had been subject to the "vocal anti-science, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine minority in Harford County."
"The County Council is caving to the pressure of, or even worse, agreeing with, a vocal minority who do not want to listen to the sound public health advice of an internationally respected medical professional," DeCoste said.
Bishai's termination went into immediate effect Friday, he said.
This article will be updated.