In normal times, your average county health department works, like most of the government bureaucracy, to keep the cogs in the machine moving. Its staff inspect public swimming pools, ensure restaurants are meeting health requirements, oversee immunizations and administer a raft of health initiatives.
It’s important work but rarely captures public attention unless something goes wrong. It’s safe to say that, until five months ago, few outside of the department itself and Moore County government even knew who the health department director was.
It’s also safe to say most folks now know Robert Wittmann.
The coronavirus has highlighted the role of the local public health department like no preceding crisis. Not the swine flu, not the H1N1 virus — nothing has brought into sharp relief the importance of public health professionals. In addition to its individual victims, the virus has also laid low much of the world’s health care system and taxed resources like never before. This has meant the need for sharp, decisive leadership.
Moore County doesn’t have that. It has a slow, reactive, defensive leader at its helm who has acted in rather odd, irrational ways at times and appeared befuddled at other times when he’s not reading from prepared remarks in public.
Wittmann’s leadership, if you can call it that, has been less than inspiring, but he need not worry. He operates with relative autonomy. That must change.
Bare Bureaucratic Minimum
Wittmann is now into his 35th year as health director. He and his agency are part of Moore County government, just like libraries and solid waste, yet Wittmann does not report to County Manager Wayne Vest, nor does he report to the Board of Commissioners directly.
Instead, he reports to a volunteer Board of Health, whose members are appointed by the commissioners. The 10-member board includes six seats whose occupant must represent a profession (e.g., physician, nurse, engineer), three seats for average residents and one county commissioner. The board meets six times a year. Again, in normal times, this is pedestrian stuff. Not so these last five months.
Wittmann’s staff have done the best they can, but he hasn’t. Despite the pointed guidance and outright imploring of his pseudo bosses — the commissioners — to do more, he’s done the bare bureaucratic minimum. Only five months into the crisis did Moore County finally get a drive-thru testing event that didn’t require a doctor’s authorization.
Remember when Wittmann decided to stop testing for the virus in nursing homes? That was April 10, the day after his department announced the first outbreak in a nursing home. We’re now up to four. Luckily, that position was eventually reversed, but his original approach was stunning for its contrariness.
We Need Change
Wittmann’s performance before commissioners this past week was disconcerting. He was asked two simple questions: How many outbreaks have we had in nursing homes, and how many nursing homes does Moore have?
Wittmann did not know, and he had to turn to his communications person, Matt Garner, for the answers: four and 16, respectively. When he’s not reading from a script, he has appeared fumbling or misinformed on his answers. He doesn’t have command of his material.
Commissioners have virtually begged Wittmann to increase public awareness and communication. This paper has frequently offered to help. Yet repeatedly, Wittmann has either not acted or been ham-handed at it. When his department issued an email with a news release about a third nursing home outbreak on July 2, it coupled it with an innocuous news release and titled the email “MCHD Urges Caution Over July 4th Holiday,” like it wanted to hide the outbreak.
There are good, qualified and capable people who can lead this important agency. Our very lives depend on it, yet the director is virtually bulletproof because his “bosses” are a board of busy professionals who likely have little time to engage in the lengthy process of finding a replacement.
Meanwhile, Moore County needlessly suffers.