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EDITORIAL: Gray firing highlights bigger problem in local COVID-19 communications

EDITORIAL: Gray firing highlights bigger problem in local COVID-19 communications

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Brenda Gray speaks during a March press conference when local officials announced the first six confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county. Gray was fired Friday after a year as director of the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, but officials have not provided a reason.

From the onset of COVID-19 in McLennan County, communication to the public about efforts to track and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic has often been misplaced. If anyone doubts this, consider city officials’ firing of Waco-McLennan County Public Health director Brenda Gray, terminated in the middle of a pandemic as part of a “reorganization of the health district.” During Wednesday’s weekly public health briefing, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver dismissed inquiries into Gray’s departure, suggesting that her role was more in an administrative nature.

Yet Gray, who had been in her position for a year, should have been front and center all along as a reliable and vital source of information for confused businesses, concerned families and weary health-care professionals grappling with a virus scientists are still trying to understand — all the more important given wildly conflicting information and directives emerging from the White House. Yet McLennan Countians saw nothing of Gray at most press briefings. We in the press seldom spoke with her. Three days passed before most in the public became aware she had been fired.

This highlights a bigger problem than whether she was fit for the job. Consider Bell County’s weekly press briefings which feature doctors from every hospital plus the public health district director. In McLennan County it’s the mayor of Waco, the county judge and someone from the Family Health Center. Why not also Gray, who presumably as administrator of the health district had some grasp (or should have) of COVID-19 statistics, increasingly bewildering and open to real skepticism? (During Wednesday’s press briefing, local officials ducked our question on whether they even had confidence in local COVID-19 statistics altered by shifting methodologies.) And why no hospital representatives present — ever?

The situation reminds us a little of the Baylor University sexual assault scandal. As a private institution Baylor was not legally bound to be too forthcoming with information about the scandal/crisis. But as we pointed out, fighting tooth and nail to prevent significant and relevant information from being released was not proper or fair to Baylor’s students, alumni and the people of this community.

Same goes in the public health crisis we now face. Granted, Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center and Ascension Providence Medical Center are privately owned hospitals. Yet we’re in the middle of a crisis unlike any seen in our lifetimes. Information is sought. Information is needed. Information from credible sources delivered directly to the public on a consistent basis is the best antidote to misinformation. The mayor and county judge can offer only so much insight. Ditto the Family Health Center, which does not house COVID-19 patients (though we were glad to see Dr. Farley Verner, medical authority for the health district, at Wednesday’s briefing). Till local authorities significantly improve how they collectively address and convey credible information, they must share at least some blame for our worsening public health picture.

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