GOSHEN – Tired of the politics and hindsight that have overshadowed nearly every aspect of her work in recent months, Dr. Bethany Wait, Elkhart County’s health officer, is ready to do something different.
Wait, who announced last week that she would be stepping down at the end of the year, recently spoke with The Goshen News about some of the main factors that led to her decision to leave her post, along with the reasons for which she decided to delay its release until December 31.
“I mean, one of the reasons for the wait was I think it’s important that Elkhart County has a health worker, and disrupting the department is the last thing I want to do, especially just because I’ve gotten to know these people for the past nine months, they’ve been fabulous, we’ve had a great time and we’ve made a difference in our community, ”Wait said in a recent interview for the podcast The Goshen News Now. “I think we are approaching almost 40,000 COVID vaccinations in the last nine months, which I am very proud of. So, I did not feel it was necessary to leave abruptly, but this what I felt in the long run is that I think the thing, the vision that I have for the health service, it just wasn’t going to work, and so I needed to do something about it. different.
Wait was hired as the county health officer on December 23, 2020, replacing retired health officer Dr Lydia Mertz. She took office on January 1 of this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
POLITICAL AND PUBLIC BATTLES
And while battling misinformation regarding the coronavirus and the denial of some community members about things like masking requirements and COVID-19 vaccines were things that Wait expected – and willingly addressed – from day one, she noted that these battles only seemed to escalate with each passing month, culminating in a 9/11 decision by members of Elkhart County Council to unanimously deny a health department request asking for $ 1 million per year for three years with a federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control. The grant would have enabled six people to be hired and trained as health educators to work with local minority populations on chronic diseases.
Council member Adam Bujalski explained at the September 11 meeting that the language in the grant would have required the Department of Health to help the federal government quarantine and isolate COVID. He added that he doesn’t like federal mandates.
“That one sentence is my no,” he said. “I refuse to say that whatever the federal government tells me I must do, I must do it. I will never say that.
It was this board decision, she said, that ultimately led to her decision to step down.
“I mean, I think it was built in the last month or so, and definitely longer than that,” Wait said. “I think the tip of the iceberg, which I think for most people they already know, was the denial of the CDC grant. It was a success for me personally, it was a success for the department in and of itself, I think, and it certainly didn’t boost our morale at all. “
Wait said she viewed the council’s decision as an unfortunate example of a non-political demand being hijacked by politics.
“My personal opinion is that this is what seemed to the Department of Health that a non-political grant turned into a political grant, and it quickly turned into this when a commissioner failed to approved the grant, then it just triggered a drop of other people not supporting it, not really knowing what the grant was for, then turning it into, well, it must be COVID, and it must be act to make masks mandatory and make vaccinations mandatory because the word ‘COVID’ is in the title, ”Wait said. “So, shortly after two of the commissioners approved, I started getting emails that copied me into the email, but were directed to the board, not to vote for the grant. And at first I didn’t necessarily think that would be a problem, but it quickly got out of hand to the point that there wasn’t any hindsight on my part to be able to change the rhetoric about this particular grant.
The denial of the grant and the lack of support she received from the council, Wait said, foreshadowed future battles that could await her if she were to remain as a health officer.
“I think that was really the deciding factor for me, was whether I was going to go through these last four weeks whenever I wanted to get a grant, or whenever I wanted to make some type of change within the health department… whatever I would have done, it was going to be politicized, and it was going to be a fight, and it was honestly a fight that I just didn’t want to have, “Wait said.” And you know, l ‘one of the commissioners told me directly:’ If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. ‘ And I thought, ‘I have to do it. I agree. I can’t … It’s not me. This is not the kind of job that I want and that I would get out of. joy.’ And so, it was very obvious that I had to go a separate path. And I can still serve my community in many ways other than just being the health worker. And so I think, for the sake of my life. family, for the sake of all my extended family, it’s time to find something different.
In a joint statement released early Thursday morning, members of the Elkhart County Board of Health announced they were starting to recruit a new county health worker to replace Wait once she steps down at the end of her life. This year.
According to Elkhart County Council member Doug Graham, choosing a replacement for Wait is the primary role of the board of health, although their selection will ultimately require the final approval of the Elkhart County Commissioners.
“As the role of a city councilor is all about expenses and taxes, I would prefer to stay out of that replacement,” Graham added of the hiring process, especially given the controversial nature of the exit of Wait. Suffice it to say that I am personally disappointed with the language of some of our citizens in attacking Dr. Wait and I hope we can temper our language and respect others in our community. Having a dissenting opinion does not give you the right to personally attack individuals. We should and must be better than that.
Regarding the expected pace of the recruiting process, Suzanne Weirick, chair of the Elkhart County Commissioners, said the county is working on its 2022 budget process and is unlikely to dive too deep into finding health workers. before the end of this job.
BOARD MEMBERS Resign
Also in Thursday’s statement, it was announced that two of the seven members of the board of health, later identified as Dr Randall Cammenga and Todd Meier, also recently tendered their resignations.
Meier, whose resignation letter was submitted on September 13, said he plans to step down from his board post at the end of the year, while Cammenga in his September 12 resignation letter has indicated that he would resign with immediate effect.
While Meier has indicated that he is leaving to take on a different role in the community that would not give him more time to serve on the board, Cammenga specifically referred to Elkhart County Council’s 9/11 rejection. of the CDC grant and his previous treatment of Elkhart. County Health Department as directly related to his decision to resign.
“ECHD has been underfunded for years by ECC,” Cammenga said in his letter. “This grant was an opportunity to bring health awareness services to our communities without any direct tax cost to our community. However, through its actions, the ECC has demonstrated once again that it does not value public health. “
Cammenga went on to note that he and his fellow board members have all chosen to serve because of a combined interest in public health and the promotion of health services needed by minority and underserved populations. As such, he said the board members made a unanimous decision to accept CDC grant funds in order to further the mission of the county health department.
“The action of Elkhart County Council was a direct refusal to accept the recommendation of the ECBH, whose goal was to improve the health of our communities,” Cammenga said. “The ECC chose to make a political decision and not a decision that is in the best interest of the health of our community.
“The ECC has shown that they do not comply with the recommendations of the ECBH and that makes it untenable for me to continue to sit on the ECBH,” he added. “This letter is my notification that I am resigning from ECBH with immediate effect. I hope that the CDCH will continue to be able to provide high quality health care to our communities in the future. “