Robert Wittmann, the longest-serving health director in Moore County history, is retiring after 36 years.
Wittmann announced his retirement during Monday’s meeting of the Moore County Board of Health. His last day will be Dec. 31.
“I am confident that the COVID pandemic is waning, and the health department is currently staffed with highly competent employees and has effective protocols and outstanding community partners to manage COVID to its inevitable reclassification as an endemic disease,” he said, reading from prepared remarks. “Therefore, I believe I may retire with confidence that the health of our residents is in good hands.”
Wittmann grew up in Guilford County and received his master’s degree in public health administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he was hired to oversee health services for a seven-county region of Virginia.
He returned to North Carolina in 1982 to manage the Lincoln County Health Department. Three years later, he was named director of the Moore County Health Department.
In a 1986 interview with The Pilot, Wittmann said he was looking for a “place to practice my craft,” and Moore County was the “most attractive” option.
“The role of public health is prevention,” he said in the interview. “We want to prevent diseases. If we can’t prevent diseases, we want to prevent the spread of diseases.”
Under Wittmann’s leadership, the health department kept a low profile. It was one of the county’s most inconspicuous government agencies, known mostly for inspecting restaurants and processing applications for supplemental food assistance.
Then came the coronavirus.
The pandemic pushed the health department into the spotlight. Residents were looking to the agency for guidance.
In the early months of the pandemic, the health department faced criticism for failing to provide timely data and actionable information about the virus. County commissioners took Wittmann to task in April 2020 for the department’s handling of the growing crisis.
“Communication within our county is poor at best,” Commissioner Louis Gregory, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Moore County Board of Health, said at the time. “I think we could do better, and we should do better.”
The department eventually responded with a robust public information campaign that included PSA-style advertisements and social media videos about COVID-19. It also began publishing daily summaries of active infections, testing and coronavirus-related hospitalizations.
Data released Monday by the department showed that over 13,300 infections and at least 242 deaths have been recorded in Moore County since the start of the pandemic. The highly contagious delta variant recently caused the virus to spread at levels not seen since the peak of the pandemic last winter, but the resurgence appears to have subsided.
About 52 percent of the county’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Of the nine counties that touch Moore, only Cumberland has a larger percentage of fully vaccinated residents.
Wittmann is the fifth individual to serve as director of the Moore County Health Department.
John Symington, the department’s first director, was employed from 1928 to 1941. Symington’s successor, Benjamin Drake, left in 1943 after less than two years on the job.
Jessie Willcox ended his 22-year run as director in 1965. He was followed by Alfred Siege, who held the position for 19 years before Wittmann was hired.
Addressing the board of health on Monday, Wittmann acknowledged that he had been “eligible for retirement for 14 years,” but decided to stick around because he “wished to complete certain goals.”
“I have had the honor to serve and serve with some of the most committed, intelligent and qualified professionals that anyone could be blessed to be associated [with],” he said. “I offer my services to the board to ensure a seamless transition.”
Wittmann said he would be willing to work under contract “on a month-to-month basis” until the board finds a suitable replacement.
“I do offer to you the suggestion that you spend some time searching for an experienced public health director,” he said, adding that the prerequisite master’s degree in public health for the position is simply a “license to learn.”
“You need to have a MPH to become a health director, but you don’t really know what you need to do until you’ve taken that license to learn and gone through some on-the-job experience,” he said. “Moore County deserves to have an experienced health director, and I would suggest you search for that.”