State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs will soon step down from his leadership role at the Mississippi State Department of Health, leaving the agency he has led for more than three years, two of which took place during the worst pandemic in the recorded history of the state.
In a press release today, Dobbs confirmed that he would be leaving the agency entirely at the end of July, returning to private practice and academia after a long career in public health. “I feel like the time is right for me to return to the clinical side of medicine, particularly the communicable-disease treatment of patients,” he wrote.
Dobbs joined MSDH in 2008, rising from District Health Officer to Mississippi’s top doc, taking leadership of the state health agency only one year before the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China.
In the years since, Dobbs has straddled a position fixed at the crossroads of science, politics, public health and culture war. He has served as Gov. Tate Reeves’ primary adviser on the pandemic in Mississippi—and many have cast him as the governor’s foil.
Health Equity and Pandemic Control
Dobbs, in his independent capacity as leader of MSDH, has been a consistent voice for intervention against the spread of coronavirus, backing restrictions on public gatherings and businesses, as well as mask mandates in public and in schools settings.
The state health officer also acknowledged, early and without hesitation, that racial and economic health disparities that predated the pandemic were contributing to disproportionate health outcomes. Early in the pandemic, such disparities inflated the infection, hospitalization and death rates in specific populations—Black women especially.
Under Dobbs’ leadership, MSDH’s Health Equity Team pursued solutions to these treatment and outcome disparities. In vaccination, at least, those efforts have left behind a visible legacy—Mississippi is one of the few states in America where the per capita vaccination rate for Black residents has surpassed their white counterparts.
At the same time, few other states in the U.S. have experienced the pandemic as acutely as Mississippi. By Delta’s arrival, the state had risen to the number-one spot in deaths per capita. In total, MSDH has recorded 12,206 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, a number that Dobbs himself has repeatedly warned trails behind the true human cost of the virus, with excess death counts supporting his statements.
Any sober analysis would place Dobbs’ tenure as the most challenging of any public-health leader in Mississippi’s history, comparable only to the Great Influenza pandemic of 1917. Now, in the midst of a serious downward decline in the spread of the pandemic, with the population thoroughly exposed to the enormously infectious omicron variant, MSDH will need to elevate a new leader capable of addressing Mississippi’s long recovery from the pandemic. In the entirely possible outcome of a new variant, they must be prepared for a return to the depths of public-health crisis.
For MSDH, A Fractured Future
Regardless of whether or not the pandemic swells again, Mississippi’s health-care system is deeply fractured. Damage from years of tackling the pandemic continues to accrue, leaving the health workforce in serious need of new talent and higher compensation.
Now, MSDH is saddled with the lion’s share of the regulatory burden of Mississippi’s medical-marijuana program, another responsibility difficult to imagine when the outgoing state health officer took his position in 2018.
Whoever takes Dobbs’ job must also grapple with the new and seemingly permanent politicization of the position. Dobbs’ stances on the pandemic and public-health interventions, even when they have not carried the full force of law, have been linked to far broader debates over the future of public health and government authority.
Dobbs has been the target of enormous ire from the far right, with swarms of conspiracies and even some threats against the state health officer and his family emerging in the wake of the pandemic. Dobbs’ replacement will enter the position with a full awareness of the intense scrutiny and rage now directed toward the state’s top public-health expert.
It will be up to the Mississippi State Board of Health to determine Dobbs’ replacement. Currently, Dr. Paul Byers is serving as state epidemiologist, the position Dobbs occupied prior to his appointment as state health officer. Dr. Daniel P. Edney, former president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, has been named deputy state health officer.
The state board will name an interim state health officer at a future date.
As of press time, Mississippians in leadership have already begun wishing the exiting state health officer well.
“Congratulations on a well-earned move,” Gov. Tate Reeves wrote on social media. “I hope you can get some rest from the constant crises, but also feel pretty confident you’ll find your way to the front-lines of helping others in your next role. Grateful for your friendship and counsel during hard times.”
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann sent a statement to the Mississippi Free Press congratulating the outgoing state health officer on his years of service. “Most of Mississippi will never know how tremendous a job this physician accomplished for all his fellow citizens,” Hosemann wrote. “To Dr. Dobbs: I am personally proud to know you and to have observed your tireless energy and selfless care in managing the response to the horrific pandemic which plagued our state. We are so very grateful. We wish you well on your return to your private medical practice.”
In a twist of fate, Dobbs leaves the agency and statewide leadership only months before the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the case bearing his name, despite the fact that Dobbs himself has no involvement with the case. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization threatens to reverse Roe v. Wade, opening the floodgates on abortion restrictions across the nation.
After years of public spotlight and scrutiny, whoever steps forward to replace Dr. Thomas Dobbs will do so with full knowledge of the role’s prominence and its pitfalls.