Someone other than Jan Malcolm will have to deal with the next pandemic.
Minnesota’s health commissioner was at the center of controversial decisions – Should the state require masks? Should businesses close to protect people? — and she’s ready for a break. His upcoming retirement was announced Wednesday by Governor Tim Walz.
Malcolm, 67, said in an interview that she always planned to work just one term in Walz’s administration, but it’s clearer now that the time is right. Malcolm lost his spouse just before the start of the pandemic, and then his mother in the fall of 2020 as COVID-19 entered a second wave. She has immersed herself in the intense pace of work, but is ready to grieve, reflect and take better care of herself.
“Whenever Magical Pumpkin Day happens, I hope the next day I’ll go to the gym, frankly, and start working out,” she said. “I want my job to be to start being healthier in the short term.”
The health commissioner has held a high-level position in Minnesota. Dianne Mandernach resigned in 2007 due to lack of communication about mesothelioma risks among Iron Range miners. Ed Ehlinger resigned in 2017 over a backlog of complaints of elder abuse in nursing homes.
Malcolm got a taste of her first term, when she was nominated by Governor Jesse Ventura to serve from 1999 to 2003. She championed state endowments, funded by tobacco lawsuit settlements, who paid for health education and helped reduce teen smoking by 30% in five years.
“Nobody thought we could do this,” she said.
But nothing prepared her for COVID-19.
She had dropped out of medical school as a young girl to pursue studies and a career in health policy, but she didn’t have much training in epidemiology or emergency preparedness. She had the expertise of Minnesota Department of Health scientists and a calm demeanor to present the facts about an unknown virus without scaring Minnesotans.
“While the issues surrounding her work have unfortunately too often become entangled in politics, she has consistently risen above the fray and provided the thoughtful and consistent leadership that Minnesotans have counted on,” the rep said. state Jen Schultz, a Democrat from Duluth who chairs House Human Services Finance. and Policy Committee.
Decisions didn’t always go Malcolm’s way. A mask mandate would likely have started earlier in 2020 and lasted longer in 2021 if its recommendations had been followed, she said. But when it came time to announce the decisions, there was barely a roll of eyes to suggest she wasn’t in favour.
That responsibility “sort of comes with the job, quite honestly,” she said. “I joked many times, ‘If it was up to me, people would have stayed home longer.’ But that was not the case.There were real economic consequences to consider.
“We had very heated debates about when we should relax,” she added. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that we opened earlier than a lot of states.”
The problem with preventative public health measures is that no one knows how well they are working, although the Mayo Clinic predicted a significantly higher COVID-19 death toll if Minnesota had done nothing. On the other hand, thousands of even temporary job losses and closed businesses were real, and Malcolm received much of the scorn.
Threats and insults, mostly anonymous, prompted her to ignore social media.
“I didn’t need to hear 200 times a day how stupid I was or why I needed to be fired,” she said.
She was not alone. A Johns Hopkins survey found that more than half of public health officials had been harassed at the start of the pandemic.
The threats gained political momentum, however, when Republican lawmakers — preferring a less intense COVID-19 response — moved in late 2021 to block its confirmation.
State Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, endorsed the idea at the time as a way to vet Walz, arguing that “the only language the governor understands is another commissioner’s removal.”
Even with his planned retirement looming, Malcolm has not quit.
“Nuh-uh, no way,” she said. “But I think it’s a really good time for me personally and I really believe there’s a lot of rebuilding to do now. And that’s going to take some new energy.”
On the plus side, a microbrewery in St. Paul named a beer after him – the curator Jan Malcolm Dazzle Me with Science IPA.
“I’m a fan of IPA,” she said.
Malcolm highlighted other moments from his two terms as health commissioner, separated by several years as head of the Courage Center, a physical rehabilitation provider. She returned in the final year of Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and was proud to address the speed of complaints in nursing homes and create a licensure system to ensure quality care. in assisted living facilities.
Other goals have been scuttled by the pandemic. Restoring trust in science and public health is paramount, she said. It has been a struggle during COVID-19 to understand and adapt to the threat of the virus, and then to convince the public of new decisions based on this changing information.
“How did we go from being trusted scientists, doing our best to protect people, to being villains in this story?” she says. “It was emotionally difficult.”