HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — The sudden resignation Monday of the Starr County health authority was the latest in a string of retirements and step-downs by border health officials in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Jose Vazquez had been health authority for Starr County for the past 10 years, but on Monday, he relinquished his post after the county judge proposed giving him a hefty pay increase that was struck down by county commissioners. And it came as the South Texas region is currently one of the nation’s worst hot spots for coronavirus.
Vazquez, who also is chairman of the board for Starr County Memorial Hospital, the rural county’s only hospital, said it wasn’t about the money but about recognition of his public service that forced him to step down.
“I work seven days a week, 24/7,” Vazquez told KVEO. “I don’t need the money.”
Starr County Judge Eloy Vera on Monday proposed to county commissioners to increase Vazquez’ pay from $500 per month, or $6,000 per year, to $10,000 per month, or $120,000. But commissioners rejected that, saying they knew other physicians who would “do it for free.” Vazquez promptly resigned.
It’s a growing trend among public health leaders over 21 weeks into this public health pandemic. Many have not had a day off in 150 days and many are not compensated for all the nights and weekend hospital and home bedside visits they make to coronavirus patients and families.
On the Southwest border, health directors or health authorities have left their posts in Laredo and El Paso, and New Mexico’s state epidemiologist also resigned since the nationwide pandemic began.
From April to June, a review by the Kaiser Health News service and The Associated Press found that nationwide at least 48 public health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired. And another 20 have left their post since June, the Associated Press reported Monday, including the following:
- California’s public health director, Dr. Sonia Angell, quit without explanation on Sunday.
- New York City’s health commissioner was replaced last week.
- In Oklahoma, both the state health commissioner and state epidemiologist have been replaced.
- The Rio Grande County, Colorado, public health director was fired in May.
Some resignations have had to do with disagreements over local facial covering policies, or conflicts health officials have had with local leaders. Others are near or at retirement age and decided it was time to take a break, while some have been let go.
In May, Laredo’s health director, Dr. Hector Gonzalez, retired within a week of the retirement of the city’s emergency management coordinator and fire chief. “I had originally planned to retire in December and this is not an ideal time to retire due to the pandemic which I shared with you, but unfortunately there are circumstances beyond my control and am compelled to take action at this time,” Gonzalez wrote in a memorandum to the mayor and city manager.
Laredo City Manager Robert Eads told the Laredo Morning Times that the city was “going in a different direction.” Assistant Health Director Robert Chamberlain was immediately promoted into the role.
In May, El Paso Public Health Director Robert Resendes stepped down and the City of El Paso issued the following statement: “It is not uncommon during challenging times to see employees decide to move to the next phase of their lives.” The position still has yet to be filled.
In Starr County, Vera had proposed increasing Vazquez’ pay by using federal money from the CARES Act sent by the state to the county. But commissioners said they wanted to save that money for medical equipment and supplies. Vera said Vazquez was paid a pittance compared to the salaries paid to health authority physicians in neighboring South Texas counties.
During a July 21 Facebook Live, Vazquez seemed visibly troubled and overworked as he laid out the many problems faced by the rural county of just 61,000 residents. “The situation is desperate. We cannot continue functioning at Starr County Memorial Hospital the way things are going. The numbers are staggering,” he said.
Starr County has had 2,501 COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths and 51 pending fatalities, officials reported on their Facebook page where they issued a statement on Vazquez’ departure Monday, saying: “We would like to thank Dr. Vazquez for his outstanding service to Starr County.” County officials said the position would be filled soon.