The future of the top health official in Floyd County, Indiana has been thrown into question after county commissioners postponed certification of another term for health officer Dr. Tom Harris.

The Floyd County Health Department board of directors recently reappointed Harris to his leadership role, but the four-year extension must be certified by the Floyd County commissioners, the local legislative and executive body. The three commissioners, all Republicans, were expected to act at Tuesday’s meeting. 

But they unanimously voted to table consideration of his extension, just hours after Harris released new restrictions for bars and restaurants. The county’s 7-day rolling average for daily COVID-19 cases has doubled since October. 

Commissioner Tim Kamer said Harris’s orders didn’t play a role in his motion to table the certification.

“In my public job, I’m faced with really hard decisions all the time, so I have to take the noise out of the equation,” Kamer said. “For this exact example, I didn’t even take that into consideration… It was really focusing solely on if this is the right person for the job, both now and in the future.”

Harris, who has been the county’s health officer since 2006, was at Tuesday’s meeting. During public comment, he questioned the commissioners about their decision.

Over the next couple of months, Harris said the health department must make decisions regarding several important matters, including vaccine administration and school plans for next semester. His current contract ends January 1, and uncertainty over who will lead the department “inhibits the response to the pandemic,” he said.

“I think I have a right to some input regarding why the commissioners are tabling the certification,” Harris said at the meeting. “It helps me plan for the future. It helps our organization plan for the future. By tabling it, it puts me in an awkward position of trying to make plans that someone else will have to implement.”

Harris could not be reached for additional comment.

Commissioners plan to meet with the health department board of directors Friday. Kamer said he’s received recommendations and feedback about the health officer position from other county officials, families of first responders and New Albany Floyd County Schools board members. The intent of the meeting, Kamer said, is to make sure the board of directors is “hearing what he’s hearing,” and that they’re “on the same page.”

“If the health board says we don’t really have any other choice and we’re just going to move forward with him and we don’t want to shake it up in the middle of the pandemic, [I’m] just looking to see what options we have,” Kamer said. “If they want to extend him to get through the pandemic and want to look at other choices, I want to understand that. But if they really feel like he is the person that’s right for the job and there’s unanimous consent, then I’ll back that up.”

Shawn Carruthers, president of the commissioners and the Floyd County GOP chair, declined to comment on the performance of the health department and Harris during the pandemic. Like Kamer, Carruthers wants to make sure members of the health board of directors are “on the same page” as the commissioners.

Because of the length of the appointment, Carruthers said the person chosen as health officer should be right for the job “not just for today or the next few months, but four years from now.”

“We’re looking to the future to make sure that the health department is in a place where we want to be four years from now to service the community,” he said. “Dr. Harris has been the officer since, I think, 2006, which is quite a long time. He’s done well. But like I said, we’re looking to the future. We want to see what else is out there that we should be preparing for.”

Kamer said he doesn’t expect it to be a “binary decision,” and that a transition from Harris would require a period of collaboration to make sure potential candidates have enough time to get acquainted with the role.

Carruthers said the six weeks until Harris’s contract expires is enough time to find a candidate, if a change in leadership is sought. He doesn’t believe a shakeup at the health department would affect the county’s response to the pandemic, even as COVID-19 cases continue to surge locally and throughout Indiana.

“There’s a lot of other agencies that are part of taking care of this pandemic,” Carruthers said. “To switch leadership is not going to be detrimental. We’re switching administrations for president right now, right in the middle of the same pandemic, so I don’t think it’s going to cost the county any great deal. There are people that are capable and willing to step up and move us through this short-term and have a vision for the future, as well.”

The commissioners next scheduled meeting is Dec. 1. Kamer said he expects to “have enough information and data” by then to come to a decision and get Harris’s certification on the agenda.

“It’s not my play to keep kicking this down the road and make a situation uncomfortable or not advantageous for [Harris] or the health department,” Kamer said. “I really am just trying to do my due diligence. There’s no side schemes or anything here. Let’s get the facts, let’s make sure we’re making the right call, then move forward.”

The Indiana State Department of Health currently lists Floyd County in the “orange category,” which indicates high community spread. Harris ordered bars to close at 10 p.m. and restaurants to reduce capacity to 75% through Dec. 21. New Albany Floyd County Schools are shifting to virtual learning through the end of the semester starting Monday.

John Boyle is a reporter and editor at WFPL news focused on Southern Indiana. He is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.