Pezzino resigns in protest; Shawnee County health officer quits 2 weeks early
TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The Shawnee County Health Department is in search of a new health officer sooner than expected after Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino abruptly resigned from his post during Monday morning’s virtual meeting of the Shawnee Co. Commissioners.
Pezzino announced his resignation mid-meeting while Shawnee County Commissioners voted 2-1 to modify the county’s most recent health order.
Commissioner Kevin Cook was the lone ‘no’ vote.
The changes allow bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. and allow organized sports outside of schools to practice.
Practices must be contained to 10 people or less, which includes players and coaches.
Operators are encouraged to stagger the times groups practice to limit the possibility of gathering.
Competitions are still not permitted.
No changes were made to the county gathering limits either.
Pezzino told commissioners the decision puts residents at greater risk for contracting and spreading COVID-19.
“In full conscience, I cannot continue to serve as the health officer for a board that puts being able to patronize bars and sports venues in front of the health, lives and well-being of a majority of its constituents,” he said.
“It is clear from the events today as well as many instances in the past months when you repeatedly questioned and undermined my decisions and advice that there are deep differences in ethics, values and strategies between this board and myself.”
The changes commissioners made also go against the recommendations of the Public Health Technical Advisory Board and the Shawnee Co. Medical Society, a group of 450 practicing and retired physicians in Shawnee Co.
The groups encouraged to commissioners to implement stronger measures if the county remains at an uncontrolled state of virus spread.
Health Department Director Linda Ochs read an account from one physician urging commissioners to not make changes.
“I think the most strikingly ugly thing about this for me personally was being on call and having seven COVID patients die in 36 hours in my entire career I can’t recall losing seven patients in a month, let alone 36 hours,” Ochs read.
Commissioner Aaron Mays, who introduced the amendment on sports practices, said he looked at health orders in surrounding counties to shape his suggestion.
He expressed concern about the time children have been spending on screens instead of doing physical activity as schools remain remote.
Pezzino empathized but said there’s other ways to get active without organized sports, citing examples from the Health Department.
“I’m all in favor of physical activity and I understand the concerns, I would encourage people to look into alternatives to organized sports for the time being so that kids can remain active but at the same time not get exposed or expose other people to the transmission of the virus.”
Pezzino said his orders have targeted situations where people may gather, which he says presents a high risk of contracting the virus.
“A lot of these cases get infected when they gather with other people and that ranges from small family gatherings for thanksgiving to more casual but broader gatherings in a bar to gather at a sports event,” he said.
“What we take into account is the type of encounter, the duration, the proximity and how much mixing of the people who patronize the business.”
Commissioners continued to ask about the risks other situations present like going to stores and accuracy of tests.
Pezzino told commissioners constant questioning of his health orders made it difficult to do his job.
“You are showing not only a disregard for the pain and suffering of the people sick and dying you are undermining the message,” he said.
Mays said by questioning the commissioners are only trying to do their jobs.
“I feel like we have a duty as elected officials to ask questions if every item that was brought to us on this agenda that we just rubber stamped, that would be irresponsible of us,” he said.
“It is a responsible thing for us to do is to ask questions and find out is the measures we’ve enacted making a difference both good or bad.”
Commissioner Bill Riphahn said commissioners are the ones who deal with the aftermath of the health orders.
“I’m the one who gets the email from the single mom who works in a restaurant, she has a second grader at home trying to learn school from looking at a tv screen she can’t afford somebody to sit at home I get those emails, you’re not the ones getting those,” he said.
In his resignation statement, Pezzino said now was “hardly the right time to relax containment measures” and made several conclusions about the commissioners.
“Number one you disregard data and best practices that prove to be effective all around the world in favor of your own narrative, anecdotal evidence and opinions not based on fact,” he began.
“Number two you do not value the opinion not only of the health officer but of the most qualified health professionals in our community and number three you value the pressure of people with special economic interests more than good science and public health practice.”
Mays said he was “troubled” by Pezzino’s decision.
“We have consistently supported his measures that he has recommended to us,” he said.
“The spirit of the order is still in place we made two very small changes in my opinion.”
Riphahn said the changes were made to fight COVID-19 on more than just a health level.
“I resent that you questioned our ethics,” he said.
“We’re fighting this from different fronts and when somebody puts their heart and soul and their money into a business just to watch it go....sift through their hands...that’s painful.”
The changes are in effect until January 19.
In a short news release sent just hours after the meeting, commissioners said they are assessing the impact of Dr. Pezzino’s immediate resignation.
Pezzino announced in late October that he would step down at the end of his contract with Shawnee County which expires December 31, 2020. At that time, Dr. Pezzino had cited “personal reasons” as the main factor in his decision. He served as the county health officer for nearly 14 years beginning January 2007.
Dr. Pezzino has worked in public health for more than three decades. He obtained his medical degree at the University of Bologna, Italy and his Master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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