Friday, February 26, 2021

Top Nebraska public health official takes private sector job

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska is losing its top infectious disease expert to the private sector just as the state is working to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

Dr. Tom Safranek, who was Nebraska’s state epidemiologist for 30 years, said Wednesday that he is retiring to take a job as chief medical officer for Omaha-based corporate health care consultant Total Wellness. Safranek joins a list of at least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states who have resigned, retired or been fired since the pandemic began last spring.

Many public health officials across the country have faced political criticism from people resisting mask orders and quarantines they recommended. In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts has rejected requiring masks to be worn because he has said such an order would breed resistance, but he has implemented other social distancing restrictions over the past year.

Safranek didn’t directly say in his statement why he decided to leave his government job, and he didn’t immediately respond to questions Wednesday. But he said he wants to help TotalWellness use its experience in providing flu shot clinics for major companies to help states distribute coronavirus vaccines.

“I’m eager to place the TotalWellness mass vaccination platform at the disposal of Nebraska and other jurisdictions, many of which are attempting to re-create this infrastructure in the middle of the crisis,” Safranek said. “This could be a game-changer for state and local health departments whose workforce is increasingly fatigued one year into the COVID pandemic.”

Although Safranek was not the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus, he served in a key role at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Safranek also saw his role change last fall when he became a special assistant to the department’s CEO, Dannette Smith, as part of a larger reorganization. The state’s Chief Medical Officer Gary Anthone has taken the lead in responding to the pandemic.

Smith praised Safranek’s work over the past year in coordinating with federal and local officials about the coronavirus. Safranek, who had worked for the state agency since 1990, was recognized last year by a trade group, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, for his work.

“Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Safranek has helped to keep DHHS current on developing infectious disease processes or outbreaks in Nebraska, the U.S. and globally,” Smith said.

Former state Sen. Sara Howard, who led the Legislature’s Committee on Health and Human Services until she left office last month because of term limits, said it’s unfortunate the state is losing Safranek.

“He is just very talented and very much a thought leader in public health so that is a big loss to the state of Nebraska,” Howard said.

State spokeswoman Khalilah LeGrand said the department still has a team of epidemiologists helping with the response to the coronavirus so Nebraska is “well positioned to continue the necessary work at present.” The state has been advertising for a new epidemiologist since last fall’s reorganization.

Nebraska health officials said Wednesday that the state has distributed nearly 200,000 of the 300,400 vaccine doses it has been allocated so far, and 3.7% of the state’s population has received both required doses of one of the vaccines.

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