Top officials from roughly one-third of Kan. health departments quit during pandemic

In a normal year, the turnover rate is 8-12% for county health administrators


Demonstrators protest the lockdown in March. These days some protesters are targeting public health officials outside their homes.

Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via TNS

By Katie Moore
The Kansas City Star

TOPEKA — Kansas has lost top health officials from roughly one-third of its county departments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirty-six health officers and administrators have left their roles, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The state has 100 health departments covering its 105 counties.

“You’ve got a brain drain situation,” said Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments.

In a normal year, Kriesel said, he would expect to see a turnover rate of 8-12% for county health administrators.

Some quit during the pandemic after experiencing threats or harassment.

Thirty-eight out of 59 health departments surveyed by the association reported verbal harassment motivated by COVID-19. Ten reported staff had been physically confronted or injured. One health department official said someone threatened to shoot her in the face while another department had their power lines sabotaged, Kriesel said.

While some had planned to retire, others left over disagreements with county commissions on how to handle the coronavirus.

In December, near the height of the pandemic, longtime Shawnee County health officer Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino immediately resigned after the county commission voted to lift some of its restrictions.

“There are deep differences in ethics, values and strategies between this board and myself,” Pezzino told the commission during a livestreamed meeting. “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 the majority of its constituents.”

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney has been the health officer in Wilson County for about nine years. She is still on the job, but the health administrator left the county health department.

McKenney said they both experienced friction with the county commission at times, such as when commissioners made “snide comments,” when they presented the latest research about COVID-19.

After a mask mandate passed, they were accompanied from the meeting by members of the sheriff’s office for their safety.

Last summer, McKenney said, someone drove by her home while video recording.

“That’s the point, I remember it was in July, that I remember thinking nope, this is not OK anymore,” she said. “I don’t care what you say on social media, or in town you hear everything because this is a small town, you hear people calling us names. But once they start driving by your house and you have kids at home, that’s when it crosses the line.”

But Fredonia, the county seat, is her hometown. She wants to be there for her community and most people, she said, have been supportive.

Brandon Skidmore, president of the Kansas Public Health Association, said the attrition rate statewide has been substantial and “very concerning.”

“As we emerge from the pandemic, we need to identify new ways to support the public health system and its workforce.”

Kriesel said that could come in several forms, including more state funding, more robust training for those hired as health department leaders and expanded efforts in educating county commissioners about the role health departments play in their communities.

(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)