Michigan county health official resigns, cites 'politicization of public health'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The acting health officer in southwest Michigan's Berrien County is resigning her post amid continuing turmoil over how local governments should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courtney Davis, the acting health officer in Berrien County, and Gillian Conrad, the county health department's communications manager, will both depart their positions in the next three weeks, according to a Monday press release.

Courtney Davis

"I make this decision with many emotions," Davis said in a statement. "Serving the residents of Berrien County for nearly five years and supporting local public health infrastructure have been among my greatest honors. 

"However, with the politicization of public health during the pandemic, I can no longer effectively do my job and serve the community with its health and safety always at the forefront."

Since August, debates have raged across Michigan focused on whether local school leaders and county health officers should impose mask mandates for students. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has declined to issue a statewide requirement, leaving the decisions to local officials.

Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have been trending upward, and currently, those under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated against the virus. Rural counties with low vaccination rates and without mask mandates for students are driving the current jumps in infections, according to a Detroit News analysis last week.

On Sept. 1, the Berrien County Health Department announced a public health order to require students to wear masks. At the time, Davis said it was "imperative that we take this action to keep students and teachers healthy and safe in the classroom."

Twenty-eight days later, the health department rescinded the order, citing language in the state budget, backed by GOP lawmakers, that attempted to block funding for counties with emergency health orders not approved by local commissioners.

Whitmer, a Democrat, said the provisions were unconstitutional and unenforceable, but some local government officials weren't convinced by her statements. Four local health agencies, covering six counties, rescinded mask mandates.

In addition to the COVID-19 debate, Berrien County is home to Benton Harbor, a city of 9,615 residents that is facing an ongoing lead-contaminated water crisis. Benton Harbor has experienced three straight years of lead exceedances despite state attempts at corrosion control measures. 

Last week, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist pledged the state would find the millions of dollars needed to remove lead service lines in the city in 18 months.

Berrien County has begun the process of replacing Davis and Conrad, according to the Monday press release.

"We appreciate and value the contributions of Courtney Davis and Gillian Conrad especially during  this very difficult time,  as well as their commitment to our community," said R. McKinley Elliott, chairman of the Berrien County Board of Commissioners. "We wish them all the best in their future endeavors."

Conrad said she needed to step away from her job for the sake of her health and the health of her family.

"What our team accomplished during the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing less than extraordinary; however, the exhaustive work of the past 19 months has taken a significant toll on my mental, emotional and physical health," Conrad said.