Northern Michigan health director quits, cites anger over mask mandates
A northern Michigan health officer who drew intense criticism over school mask mandates in six counties announced her resignation Tuesday, citing a “hostile work environment” created by the multi-county Board of Health.
Lisa Peacock will leave her positions as health officer for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which covers Emmett, Charlevoix, Otsego and Antrim counties, and the Benzie-Leelanau District Health District, on April 29, according to her resignation letter.
The resignation follows months of vitriol in the region over school mask mandates her department implemented. The department rescinded the orders last week, as did several other health departments, citing falling COVID-19 case rates. But Peacock told Bridge Michigan late Tuesday that she didn’t believe her relationship with the health board “was getting better any time soon.”
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Her resignation from the Northwest Michigan health department means she will also no longer serve as health officer in Benzie and Leelanau counties, because those counties contract with Northwest Michigan for a health officer.
“I love my job and I love the people of northern Michigan,” Peacock told Bridge Michigan late Tuesday. “But my health is suffering.”
Some members of the board of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, made up of two commissioners from each of the four counties, had tried to fire Peacock last fall over the mask mandate, but that motion failed on a 5-3 vote. While the four counties share a health department, they are politically split between conservative and progressive constituencies.
In September, shortly after Peacock had instituted school mask mandates in the six counties amid the delta variant, a board of health meeting was so tumultuous that two commissioners resigned and Peacock took a medical leave.
She also had become a known face to local residents from weekly public COVID updates, streamed on Facebook, with Traverse City-based Munson Healthcare.
Even after the mask mandate was lifted last week, the board of health is still considering cutting the health department’s budget, Peacock told Bridge, citing the agenda for a meeting next week.
“I am most disappointed in the recent retaliation I have endured for the issuance of a public health order aimed at protecting children, school staff, and the general public,” Peacock wrote in her resignation letter, given to board of health members at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“I am extremely disheartened by the board members who have questioned my integrity and intentions and have even expressed their belief that I deserve the abuse I have received. The public attacks and campaign of humiliation at public meetings is something I no longer have the strength to endure, and no reasonable professional would, either.”
The resignation appeared sudden. Just a few hours earlier, Peacock appeared publicly in the regular call with Munson Healthcare. She said she was optimistic about declining COVID case rates and about celebrating those as a community.
“This is wonderful that we're in the stage, and we expect to see that happen for longer periods of time as COVID evolves,” she said.
“As we move through the cycle together, it's just important to understand that we know more now, we have more tools in our toolbox, and we're able to kind of enjoy this recovery post-surge,” she said.
At noon Tuesday, she joined a call with fellow executive committee members of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, which represents Michigan’s local health departments.
“She said nothing about it (leaving),” said Norm Hess, the group’s executive director.
Peacock was set to become MALPH’s president this past October. But last fall, as political divisions over COVID policies mounted, several county commissioners unsuccessfully tried to oust Peacock and the health department’s medical director Dr. Josh Meyerson.
Given the local “difficulties,” she asked MALPH President Nick Derusha to continue his role, Hess said.
Hess and Derusha told Bridge Tuesday evening they were not aware of Peacock’s resignation. Both, though, said they were not surprised, given the community’s reaction to her mask orders.
“It’s a sad, sad day when a true local public health professional that has dedicated her career to protecting the health of her community is driven out by pandemic politics,” Derusha said.
He said Peacock’s feelings are shared by other health officers who also have endured two years of criticism and second-guessing over pandemic orders.
“If somebody says they don’t feel like that, they’re probably lying,” he said.
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