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Whitmer administration’s top COVID doc says she steps away with no regrets

Joneigh Khaldun
As coronavirus spread across the U.S. toward Michigan in February, 2020, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun appeared alongside Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to announce the opening of the state’s emergency medical operations center. She provided “around-the-clock leadership,” Whitmer said last week in announcing her departure. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

Early last year, COVID forced Dr. Joneigh Khaldun into the spotlight as Michigan’s top doctor, just short of one year after she was named to the post.

On Tuesday — two days before she steps back out of the role for an unspecified job in the private sector — the chief deputy director for health and chief medical executive at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said she has no regrets about her pandemic work in the Whitmer administration.

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Khaldun, who is also a Henry Ford Hospital emergency doctor and member of President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, answered a few questions about her tenure, where she was a familiar presence at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s press conferences and key advisor on some controversial emergency health orders.

The questions and answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity only.

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Let’s start right here: Where are you going?

I'm unable to say where I'm going. I know an announcement will be coming in the coming weeks. But you know, I decided to become a physician because I wanted to improve the health of communities — all communities — and address disparities. That’s the same work I’ve been doing and will continue to do.

 

Health officers have been subjected to incredible pressure and even personal threats recently. How did the pandemic affect you personally, and did it have anything to do with you leaving?

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone — for frontline health care workers, for public health leaders and staff. But it has been an honor; we have an incredible team. The leadership has been phenomenal. I’ve had great relationships, and it actually has been fun, dare I say.

We haven’t been able to do as much as I would have liked with the pandemic, but my Medicaid team, and behavioral health, and things we’ve been able to do at state hospitals — there are things I’m proud of and certainly will miss.

But I’ve been in the position for 2 ½ years. It’s certainly been an honor, and I didn’t expect to do this forever as an appointee. I’m excited about the next step.

Did you have disagreements with Gov. Whitmer or (MDHHS Director Elizabeth) Hertel?

It was always really important to have people bring their skill set and bring their voice to the table. That’s what really great leadership is about — giving everyone a voice and having conversations.

So I cannot feel that there have been disagreements. I feel like I've been in an environment where everyone's voice has been valued, and my voice has been valued, I believe, by the governor and the director. And I'm grateful for that. I think that's why we've been able to have such success in our COVID response.

Did the pandemic orders, then, from Governor Whitmer or Director Hertel reflect your recommendations?

I think it has always been that my perspective has been valued and reflected in what has come out in the orders.

So it sounds like you are leaving on good terms with Director Hertel and Governor Whitmer.

Oh, absolutely. There have been some tears shed.

Tell me about the highlight of your term at MDHHS?

The day we rolled out the vaccines. It was a lot of work to get to that point. We knew when we started, that when we started the vaccine rollout that we were going to be getting to a better place in the pandemic, and that lives were going to be saved because of the vaccines. That's something I'll always remember.

I was on site at the University of Michigan hospital.

There was a group of us, and literally went to the loading dock where the truck was backing up with boxes and coolers. And we were taking (vaccines) out of the coolers and putting them in the deep freezer. We had people lined up, and we started literally administering the vaccines in the auditorium that day.

That I will always remember, and that was definitely a turning point in the pandemic.

Regrets?

I can’t say that I have any regrets.

I just wish that our entire country was more prepared for this pandemic. I wish our public health infrastructure was stronger. I think a couple of the things that happened, and quite frankly why we've lost so many lives, have been because of the lack of investment in public health, and in particular, a lack of investment in some of our more vulnerable, under-resourced, minority communities.

I believe we could, as a country, have done better.

There has been a call by some health officials for a state mask mandate. What is your thinking? (Khaldun last month acknowledged advising the governor that a state mask mandate for schools, if followed, would decrease the spread of COVID.)

I know that the director and the government are regularly following the data and looking at cases, and they will continue to evaluate them.

They care a lot about our kids and, of course, the pandemic and getting cases down, and that's all I’ll say about that.

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