Who is calling the shots on public health in Alabama?


Alabama’s state health officer, Dr. Scott Harris, speaks during an Alabama Department of Public Health news conference in Montgomery, Ala., Thursday, March 19 2020. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)AP


His orders have shut down bars and restaurant dining rooms, canceled spring weddings and closed beaches in peak season.

“I would not want to be him right now,” said Dr. Beverly Jordan of Enterprise, a physician on the board of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. “But I really think he’s handled this crisis wonderfully.”

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris is charged with calling the shots for most of the state during a pandemic. As a result, he has become a familiar figure – the face of regular updates on the toll of the coronavirus on Alabama.

He typically starts each announcement with a recap of the numbers, delivered in the kind of quietly matter-of-fact tone you might use to give bad news to a frightened patient. Lately those numbers have become a point of friction.

Harris’s department keeps a database of confirmed COVID-19 cases by county, the number of reported tests and information about hospitalizations and deaths. He’s faced criticism when those numbers don’t match information coming more quickly from hospitals, or lag behind reports on social media.

Harris has a background in infectious diseases and public health. Raised in Talladega, he went to Harding University in Arkansas for undergraduate and the University of Alabama at Birmingham for medical school.

According to Jordan, he is a stickler for verification, often holding off on posting results until they’ve been confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes that causes a delay in the official numbers.

Harris, who was designated state health officer in February 2018, saw last year the consequences of publicizing preliminary information. During a nationwide measles outbreak, a young Alabama girl tested positive at a commercial lab. Harris announced the positive case, but later had to retract it when testing at the CDC came back negative for the virus.

So he has taken a cautious approach with information about COVID-19. But Jordan said he has been accessible to doctors trying to better understand the emerging illness. So far, he has held two conference calls with doctors that have gone on well into the night.

Early in the morning after the first one, Jordan checked her email.

“At 5 o’clock that morning, he had emailed me evidence-based research on why he had answered the question that way,” Jordan said.

Harris worked as an infectious diseases doctor in Decatur for 19 years. He treated patients with HIV and other illnesses. In 2005, he helped establish the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County and worked there for 12 years. The executive director, Jessica Payne, said Harris put in place processes for serving uninsured patients with medical and dental care, along with discounted prescription drugs. Payne said he often took time with patients, explaining complex diagnoses and answering questions.

“As an overall big picture person, he could be called upon to solve problems,” Payne said. “He’s also a kind person on top of being very, very smart.”

In 2015, Harris became the area health officer for the region that includes Decatur. He graduated from UAB’s School of Public Heath in 2017 with a master’s degree in health policy.

It was that background in public health and infectious diseases that made him well qualified for the top post when former State Health Officer Dr. Tom Miller retired in 2017.

Dr. John Meigs, Jr. sat on the committee that hired Harris. He said they were impressed by his public health credentials and the work he’d done as an area health officer. As state health officer, Harris has had to navigate not just the medical terrain, but the political one too.

“There have been a lot of rumors going on about the coronavirus and he’s really just trying to make sure the facts are there,” Meigs said. “He has been very careful not to say anything that wasn’t truthful.”

Jordan said Harris has a difficult job. A county health officer can take action based on local conditions, but his post requires making decisions for the entire state.

“He’s really risen to the challenge of having to handle a tale of two different crises,” Jordan said. “He’s dealing with what’s happening in our urban areas followed by what’s happening slowly behind in our rural areas.”

Many of Harris’s orders, and those issued by Gov. Kay Ivey, have not been popular. Some want to get back to business as usual while others call for more stringent restrictions on movement. Harris advocates for public health, but the governor makes the final call.

“There are parts of our state that are seeing no cases,” Jordan said. “It’s really hard to take hard lines when no one in your community is affected.”