Shake-up comes at Wisconsin health agency during pandemic

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two of Wisconsin's top officials at the state health department have resigned in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, with one joining a liberal advocacy group and the other's departure shrouded in secrecy.

Nicole Safar, who had been the third in command at the state Department of Health Services, left the agency April 1. The liberal advocacy group A Better Wisconsin Together announced on Monday that she would be working as its executive director.

State Health Officer Jeanne Ayers was asked to resign from the department in early May and she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an article published Tuesday that she was not told why.

A department spokeswoman on Tuesday declined an Associated Press request to speak with the health department secretary, Andrea Palm, about the departures.

The shake-up comes as conservatives have questioned the state’s response to the pandemic and the Republican-controlled Senate has held off on confirming Palm as secretary. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ appointed her in 2019 and some GOP senators unhappy with the state’s handling of the pandemic have called for Palm to be fired.

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. Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff referred questions about the departures to the state health department.

An automatic response to an email sent to Ayers on Tuesday said questions could go to Stephanie Smiley, the acting administrator for the Division of Public Health. She did not immediately return a message.

Ayers told the Journal Sentinel in an interview that she was asked to leave the job she held for 14 months during a May 10 phone call with Palm and Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk. Ayers said she hadn’t received any warnings about the quality of her work and she was not aware of any disagreements over her handling of the fight against the pandemic.

In her May 12 resignation letter, Ayers said she worked hard to meet the challenges of the job and that she was “disappointed that I will not be able to continue that work in the Evers administration, but I wish you and the (division) staff nothing but the best as you carry on the important work of public health.”

“Times of great uncertainty and change create an urgent challenge for leaders to bravely lead with a set of clear aims and values,” Ayers said in her letter, adding that she had tried to do that during her time at the department.

Ayers oversaw several programs, including communicable and chronic diseases; health promotion; environmental health, occupational health, family and community health; and emergency preparedness and emergency health services. Before joining the state health department in March 2019, she worked for the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota.

Safar joined the state health department at the beginning of Evers' administration in 2019. She had previously worked for 14 years as lobbyist, political director and vice president of public affairs and legal advocacy at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

Safar's appointment had drawn criticism from some Republicans because of her long history with Planned Parenthood.

Safar, an attorney, will now work as executive director for A Better Wisconsin Together. That group's deputy director, Mike Browne, did not immediately return a message seeking an interview with Safar.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement Tuesday that Republicans have a number of concerns with how the department is being run.

“Governor Evers would be wise to clean up his agency in a hurry," he said. "With $2 billion dollars coming from the federal government, it’d be great if they could at least assure taxpayers that they’re managing the money responsibly.”

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