Top Montgomery County Health Official Moving on After ‘Marathon' Pandemic

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Montgomery County’s health director became a household name during the coronavirus pandemic, but now Dr. Travis Gayles is preparing for his next career move.

Gayles said the past 18 months has been like an “ongoing marathon.”

“I’m not a marathon runner, but I imagine this is what it feels like, particularly when you can see the end, you can see the finish line,” he said.

In less than two weeks, Gayles will walk out of the Dennis Avenue Health Center for the final time, leaving the county to finish the race without its most prominent public health voice.

Gayles is joining Hazel Health, a San Francisco-based startup that provides telehealth services to K-12 schools.

“As a pediatrician, as someone who has researched and worked in that field throughout my career, I could not have asked for a better opportunity to continue that particular mission, but at the same time, one is exhausted,” he said.

Gayles first got word of COVID-19 in late 2019. The county had no confirmed cases, but that changed in just a matter of weeks.

Gayles and his team of doctors, epidemiologists and other public health experts went to work trying to fend off an invisible enemy, but they soon found themselves operating in a health care system rife with inequities.

“Many of the health decisions that we’ve needed to make have been exacerbated by long-standing inequities and disparities in systems,” Gayles said.

Catering the public health response to confront those disparities often put the county at odds with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

"I stand by the decisions that we’ve made because they have been grounded in data and science to keep our residents safe," Gayles said.

“Our task is to say what is the healthiest for the communities and what will keep folks safe,” he said.

Delivering those bitter truths during weekly COVID-19 briefings made Gayles the target of racist and homophobic abuse.

“You develop a thick skin and you brush a lot of stuff off, but you reach a point where you’re like, We’re trying to keep people safe as best as possible,” he said.

Gayles joins a number of public health officials leaving their jobs across the country. He said the ongoing politization of the pandemic is pushing many of them toward the exit.

Gayles said there still are lessons to be learned to better prepare for the next pandemic.

“Having a pandemic highlight those disparities and bring them to attention, this is the time to address them,” he said. “This is the time to do that work, and if we don’t do that, we will regret that five, 10, 20 years from now.”

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