In a move that caught Montgomery County leaders by surprise, Dr. Travis A. Gayles, one of the county’s top health officials and a public face of its pandemic response, announced on Wednesday that he will step down in September.
A letter Gayles sent to County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) and the Council Council overnight gave no reason for his decision to resign as health officer and chief of Public Health Services.
But Elrich told reporters that Gayles has “gone through hell over the past 18 months.”
“He absorbed a torrent of hate and vitriol from segments of the public, including receiving threats on his safety, racist and homophobic emails, and social media attacks,” the executive said.
“He just didn’t get to be the doctor, but he was attacked in unprecedented ways throughout this.”
County health officers in Maryland are jointly appointed by the governor and local leaders.
Over the course of the pandemic, some health officers, including Gayles, the vice-chairman of the Maryland Association of County Health Officers, have clashed with state leaders over policies governing business activity, social gatherings, mask requirements and vaccine allotments.
Gayles “had to fight with his boss,” Elrich said. He “advocated policies that were often opposed to what the governor was advocating. To be at odds with your boss is not always an easy thing to do.”
Gayles was hired by Elrich’s predecessor, Isiah Leggett (D), in 2017. He served as chief medical officer for the District of Columbia’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Administration prior to accepting the post in Rockville.
Like health and political leaders at every level, he has worked seven days a week since the start of the pandemic, crafting policy and communicating with elected officials, business owners, educators and the general public.
A seemingly unflappable expert on public health policy, he was a regular presence at Elrich’s weekly news briefings.
“I believe Dr. Gayles will go down as one of the most important people in our county’s history,” the executive said. “His leadership, his strength, during probably the most significant public health threat any of us have ever experienced, has been remarkable, and I’m thankful for his service to the residents of Montgomery County.”
Gayles was unavailable for comment Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.
Elrich and the council learned of Gayles’ decision to depart in an email that arrived at 3 a.m. The executive said Gayles is on vacation and that he sent the message at 9 a.m. local time.
Gayles thanked county leaders for “creating a space for science to be heard and embraced, and for advocating for equitable access to improved health outcomes for all our residents.”
“I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve the residents of Montgomery County for the past 4 years, including through the past 18 months related to Covid-19,” he added. “It has been an honor to work alongside you all and provide health related guidance across a host of important issues.”
His last day with the county will be September 12.