A few weeks ago, the editors of Elemental released a list of 50 experts in health and science to follow for their expertise on the pandemic. The list included amazing, thoughtful people — some of whom I know and most of whom I follow. However, there was a major oversight in the list: None of the identified experts are currently working in local health departments and only a few have had recent experience in a health department.
Our state and local officials have been on the front lines of this fight before we even knew there was a front line. They are reliable sources of on-the-ground information, especially now that many federal sources of scientific information have been co-opted by partisan politics. These leaders champion science and put the health of communities first even in the face of harassment and threats.
There are many public health practitioners who have amazing takes, and there are equally amazing organizations that represent them, including the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and the Big Cities Health Coalition. But I want to lift up some leaders who currently work in a state or local health department — or who have recently. The 12 leaders on this list are reliable sources of information, opinions, and expertise and have had some national exposure either through a leadership position or media engagement. This list isn’t comprehensive — just some of the leaders with experience in health departments who I recommend following. I’d love to hear your thoughts on who else would be on your list.
OXIRIS BARBOT, MD
Former Health Commissioner, New York City
As the first Latina commissioner of health in New York City, Dr. Barbot oversaw the city’s response to COVID-19 — which devastated Black and brown communities in particular — through August. As she and her colleagues saw the cases and deaths adding up among people of color, Dr. Barbot made an unorthodox decision to release preliminary data pointing to the disparate impacts of the pandemic. At the height of the outbreak, she told New Yorkers that if they were ill, they likely had COVID and should stay home. Her crisis communication has always been rooted in science, just as when she led the response to the country’s largest measles outbreak in 2019. Dr. Barbot is a lifelong public servant dedicated to protecting communities and speaking truth to power when it is most needed.
SARA CODY, MD
Health Officer, County of Santa Clara, Calif.
As the health officer for the County of Santa Clara in California, Dr. Cody was called “the Bay area’s Anthony Fauci” by the Mercury News. She led her local cohorts to issue one of the first shelter-in-place orders in the country on March 16. The historic seven-county legal order required residents to stay home days ahead of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s similar mandate for the entire state. Dr. Cody may have been better prepared than most other leaders: Back in the early 2000s, with the country on edge after 9/11, Dr. Cody and her colleagues led the health department’s effort to build the county’s model for a massive, coordinated emergency response to a bioterrorism attack or pandemic, which included social distancing, closing schools, and mandating that people stay home. Dr. Cody exemplifies how leadership and preparedness are critical for public health leaders.
ABDUL EL-SAYED, MD, DrPH
Author and CNN Political Commentator
Dr. El-Sayed was a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University when in 2015, he was appointed to lead the Detroit Health Department in the wake of the city’s municipal bankruptcy. For his service, Dr. El-Sayed was named Public Official of the Year by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He resigned as health director in 2017 to run for governor, finishing second in the Democratic primary to current governor Gretchen Whitmore. He is currently a political contributor at CNN and recently published the book Healing Politics: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic. Dr. El-Sayed also hosts “America Dissected with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed,” a podcast about politics and public health.
Watch him on CNN’s New Day.
PATRICE HARRIS, MD, MA, FAPA
Former Chief Health Officer, Fulton County, Ga.
Patrice Harris is the immediate past president of the American Medical Association and its first Black woman president. She is a psychiatrist by training and for several years worked at the Fulton County Health Department in Georgia, including as the county’s chief health officer. Dr. Harris has a true public health lens. Throughout the pandemic, she has been vocal about supporting mental health, as well as looking at all pieces of the COVID-19 puzzle, such as the importance of masks and disparities in health outcomes among people of color.
PATTY HAYES, RN, MN
Director, Public Health–Seattle-King County
The U.S.-based COVID-19 epidemic started in Seattle, and Hayes, longtime leader of the Seattle-King County Public Health Department, was at the center of it. The documentary “Outbreak: The First Response,” produced by Soledad O’Brien Productions and the de Beaumont Foundation, chronicles the decisions and dilemmas that Hayes faced throughout the early days of the pandemic. In this compelling film, Hayes brings urgency and calm and represents the best of the public health field.
JONEIGH KHALDUN, MD, MPH, FACEP
Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director for Health, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
As Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s top public health leader, Dr. Khaldun has stood strong as opposition has mounted in the state. Dr. Khaldun previously led the Detroit Health Department and worked in the Baltimore City Health Department. Among her other relevant experience, she led Detroit’s response to the largest hepatitis A outbreak in modern history, from 2016 to 2019, coordinating screening and vaccination at major emergency departments and vaccinating more than 8,500 people. She has been a composed presence throughout the pandemic, keeping the focus on public health over politics.
Watch Dr. Khaldun on “Meet the Press.”
JEANETTE KOWALIK, PhD, MPH
Commissioner of Health, Milwaukee Health Department
During her time as Milwaukee health commissioner, Dr. Kowalik stabilized the health department, reorganized and reconnected the city to community, regional, and state public health partners, and led Milwaukee through the COVID-19 pandemic. Her response centered on policy, issuing several orders to prevent the spread of infection and save lives. Unfortunately, Dr. Kowalik decided to resign after facing threats and harassment. She will soon join Trust for America’s Health, where she will work on national policy initiatives.
RACHEL LEVINE, MD
Secretary of Health, Pennsylvania Department of Health
As Pennsylvania’s health commissioner and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Dr. Levine has been at the forefront of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called her the “calm in the eye of the COVID storm.” Dr. Levine holds true to the state health department’s vision of a healthy Pennsylvania for all, vowing to do everything in her power to achieve that goal, saying, “Whether people agree with me or if they don’t…their health is still important to me.” Rarely is the spirit of public health practice captured better than in these words.
JULIE MORITA, MD
Executive Vice President, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Before joining the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Morita spent nearly 20 years at the Chicago Department of Public Health. In her last 4 ½ years serving as commissioner, she led with equity in developing Healthy Chicago 2.0, ensured that the department had needed data platforms, and managed the city’s response to Ebola. As the head of the immunization program, she also led the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine in Chicago. Over the past year, Dr. Morita has continued to emphasize the importance of vaccines and vaccine planning.
MARCUS PLESCIA, MD, MPH
Chief Medical Officer, ASTHO
Dr. Plescia has had a long career in public service. For the past 15 years, he has served in public health leadership roles at the state, local, and federal levels, including as director of chronic disease for the North Carolina Division of Public Heath, director of national cancer control programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and county public health director in Charlotte, N.C. Throughout the pandemic, he has been a consistent champion for public health on topics ranging from testing to mask wearing to vaccine development. In his current role as chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Dr. Plescia gives voice to many state health officials who are unable to engage with the media.
MYSHEIKA ROBERTS, MD, MPH
Health Commissioner, City of Columbus, Ohio
As health commissioner for the City of Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Roberts serves year-round residents and students at Ohio State, one of the nation’s largest universities. Dr. Roberts has seen Columbus through the response to COVID-19, dealing with testing shortages, K-12 school and university openings, and ongoing challenges such as substance use disorder and infant mortality. She was previously the assistant health commissioner and medical director for Columbus; worked at the Baltimore City Health Department; and was an officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.
UMAIR SHAH, MD, MPH
Executive Director, Harris County Public Health
Having led Texas’ Harris County through Hurricane Harvey, Dr. Shah has the experience needed to tackle public health crises. A former president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, Dr. Shah has championed public health to national leaders and in repeated congressional testimony. He has been a vocal advocate for increasing the profile of public health practitioners, fighting the profession’s “invisibility crisis.” His focus on innovation has helped the Harris County Health Department upend traditional stereotypes of stagnant, bureaucratic governmental health agencies.
Let us know what current or former health officials you’d recommend. Tweet us at @deBeaumontFndtn and @BrianCCastrucci.