MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin's chief health officer quit Thursday as COVID-19 continues to run rampant across the state, saying her job has been hard and she needs to pay more attention to herself and her family.
State Health Officer and Department of Health Services Interim Division of Public Health Administrator Stephanie Smiley is the second state health officer to resign in the last six months. She announced her resignation would be effective Nov. 11 in a letter to local health departments. She wrote that she has accepted a position outside state service so she can focus more on her own health and family.
“To say 2020 has been hard is an understatement,” Smiley wrote. “As public health officials, you have repeatedly needed to deliver bad news that has sparked fear, frustration, anxiety and criticism. And despite all of this, you and your staff have risen to the occasion and continue to do what you can to battle through this,” Smiley wrote in her letter.
DHS officials said they will begin a search for Smiley's replacement. In the meantime DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk will serve as interim state health officer and Deputy Division of Public Health Administrator Chuck Warzecha will serve as interim division administrator.
Smiley stepped into the health officer role after Gov. Tony Evers’ administration forced her predecessor, Jeanne Ayers, to resign in May. Little is known about why Ayers left the agency. She had been an early public figure in the coronavirus fight and briefed state lawmakers on it in March. Ayers resigned about a month after DHS Assistant Deputy Secretary Nicole Safar left the agency.
The shake-up came as Republicans were questioning the Evers’ administration’s response to the pandemic as too draconian. The governor’s mandatory stay-at-home order was in effect at the time. The conservative-leaning state Supreme Court struck the order down in May but even now, months later, some Republicans in the state Senate still want DHS Secretary Andrea Palm to be fired.
As the political squabbling goes on in Madison, the disease continues to spread unchecked across Wisconsin.
The DHS reported an additional 5,922 confirmed cases Thursday, just 17 cases shy of the daily case record of 5,935 set Wednesday. The state has now seen 249,924 cases since the pandemic began in March. The disease was a factor in another 38 deaths Thursday, the department said, bringing the overall death toll to 2,194.
The DHS reported that 2.13 million people have now been tested for the disease in Wisconsin. That's a little more than a third of the state's population.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported that 1,747 people were hospitalized with the disease as of Wednesday, including 360 patients in intensive care and 559 on ventilators.