“I don’t think there’s a lot of time right now to do a lot of navel-gazing. We need to keep on plowing here and moving forward.” That was Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ way, at a Friday afternoon press conference, of summing up what had to have been one of the most harrowing weeks that any public figure has endured of late.
During the past week, 1) a 100-year snow caused a water crisis and immobilized his and other local jurisdictions, which found themselves locked down, not by government mandate, but by Mother Nature; 2) a county vaccine-distribution program, already regarded as problematic, was halted by state edict (not without some subtle shaming by state authorities) and turned over to the city of Memphis and other local agencies, public and private; 3) the director of the county Health Department, Alisa Haushalter, resigned amid a widening scandal related to a state investigation revealing the spoiling locally of 2,500 unused vaccine doses.
Prior to the press conference, Harris had spent a visibly uncomfortable two hours sitting Buddha-like in a special called meeting of the Shelby County Commission, whose members took turns grilling him on the import and details of the vaccine debacle. There was concern among some commissioners about an alleged “power struggle” between city and county. Commissioner Van Turner rejected what he saw as a misleading sub-text here and there questioning the mayor’s performance.
There was little brand-new information adduced in the dialogue with the commission, aside from the revelation of the Haushalter departure, which had leaked out earlier Friday, and references to “suspicious activity” and alleged theft of vaccine from the Pipkin/Fairgrounds vaccine-distribution site that had stirred law enforcement inquiries at the site. Going forward, Pipkin will be operated by the by the city of Memphis, in tandem with UT Health Sciences.
In the later press conference, Harris revisited some of the content of the commision meeting. In his Zoom talk with reporters, he shouldered the potentially humiliating loss of surrendering responsibility for vaccine storage. He accepted it in the spirit of “it-is-what-it-is” and vowed to seek “a new working relationship and a clean slate” working in harness with the state, the city, and the other agencies charged now with distribution of vaccines and administration of vaccinations.
Harris vowed to “put forth the best practices” and said he was having “departments engaged in remediation planning” and ”moving their focus away from vaccine administration.” He said he was having daily conversations with Lisa Piercey, director of the state Health Department of Health, who on Monday publicly terminated the county Health Department’s responsibility for storage and allocation of vaccine supplies.
Harris was diplomatic about how it came to pass that Haushalter resigned. “We had been in conversation about the path forward and the appropriate path forward at this juncture, based on what had happened and based on what Director Haushalter wants to do. … I agreed with her decision to resign. So I prefer to, you know, try to treat all our employees with respect and dignity, and particularly because all of our employees devoted their careers to service or community helping. So the decision was ultimately made, that she was resigning, and I accepted that resignation.”
Haushalter, who did not attend either the commission meeting or the press conference, will cease her duties as of March 15th, but will evidently remain on the county’s human resources roster until March 31st. Haushalter had been appointed to her directorship by former county Mayor Mark Luttrell and was inherited by Harris when he began his mayoralty in 2018.
Said Harris: “All of us are learning about the wasted dosage, that there were doses expiring in the pharmacy, and so forth. And so we’re gonna have to work hard to rebuild trust. … I’ve talked about making sure that we change out some of those personnel that have responsibility for management.” As for replacing Haushalter, “We’ll go through a process of trying to identify a really incredible candidate for this time. I mean, this is a very unique time that I don’t think any of us have seen in our lifetime. Our public health employees are burning the candle at both ends. … They’ve been working extremely hard. And I think we have an opportunity here to get someone who is poised for this moment.”
Asked about his ability to interface positively with others, Harris said, “I have a good relationship with at least the executive branch of the city. And with respect to … other folks in town, with respect to the commission, a great working relationship with them. I think this is just a challenging period for everyone, particularly, you know, all of us on the Joint Task Force. You know, we’re all exhausted, because of the pandemic. We’re all frustrated. We all want things faster. We all want more quickly, we all want to be better. But I think on the whole, given where we are on such a tough road ahead. I’m pretty blessed.”
Harris’ determination to discover silver linings extended to one of the revelations from the state investigation that resulted in this week’s reordering of responsibilities — the fact of 50,000 unused vaccine doses in Shelby County. This extra inventory, he noted, happened to be the solution to the mounting determination in various quarters to reopen the schools and simultaneously to vaccinate Shelby County’s teachers.
“That was always the plan.” And, Harris said, it began to seem like it was a possibility during the snowstorm, around February, when we started saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to reopen!’”
Harris concluded his press availability with a promise to be forthcoming with the public henceforward. “So please,bear with me, okay?”