A Commitment to Strong Partnerships Pays Off During Pandemic
Edwin Singer, Health Officer, Carroll County Health Department
by Kym Byrnes
Singer grew up in Eldersburg and attended Mount Saint Joseph High School before going on to graduate from Western Maryland College, where he was on the wrestling team and the track team, had an ROTC scholarship, and met Michelle, who he would eventually marry. After college he started a military career in the National Guard, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. He and Michelle had two kids, and Ed started a career in public health — and even found time to coach wrestling at Liberty High School for a few years. In all of these experiences — in public health, in military deployments, in parenting — nothing prepared him for the chaos that he would face in the spring of 2020.
“When we had our first outbreak, it took me back to my days of being in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “We have not seen this in our lifetime and, God willing, I hope we don’t see it again.”
The Health Department’s mission is to build a safe and healthy community for all, and Singer sees himself as someone who brings people and organizations together for a common cause, and who will leverage resources to get things done. He said he has spent decades building partnerships, and it is those solid and reliable relationships with leaders and organizations across the county and state that allowed Singer and his staff to hit the ground running when the pandemic hit.
“While we offer some safety net services and a clinic, our primary focus is to establish partnerships in the community,” Singer said. “My biggest job is to build relationships between us and other organizations, whether it’s elected officials, social services, law enforcement, the hospital — we work to make them understand what’s important and what’s needed when it comes to improving the health in the community.”
Steve Wantz, president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, said that Singer has not shied away from telling the truth while offering guidance throughout the pandemic, always giving clear and concise answers while “keeping the ridiculousness of politics out of the equation.”
“It seems as if Ed and I have been attached at the hip for the last 10 months,” Wantz said. “We have a very positive working relationship, and neither of us has been afraid to challenge one another with difficult questions. We have also disagreed at times on answers, but we are always willing to listen to each other and accomplish the end goal.”
Singer’s relationship with school and hospital leaders has been crucial as Carroll County navigates reopening the economy and schools. Public schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Lockard said that Singer has been instrumental in helping schools navigate guidelines, recommendations, directives and protocols that are constantly evolving and coming from different government agencies.
“The collaborative efforts led by Mr. Singer are all aimed at improving community health and wellness, and look for creative and innovative ways to pool resources, share information and examine new ways in which we can tackle significant and complex issues facing the community,” Lockard said. “He is collaborative and a great listener who is always available to provide feedback, give input, or connect you with additional support or resources.”
Dr. Meena Brewster has been the health officer for St. Mary’s County for eight years. She said the challenges of leading through a pandemic have been extraordinary — “trying to stay ahead of a bizarre new virus, tune in to all the rapidly emerging science, minimize loss of life amongst global shortages in PPE [personal protective equipment] and uncertain treatments, implement disease investigation and control measures, despite sometimes unreliable testing capacity and severe delays in test results, keep our essential community partners and residents engaged in prevention measures over months and months without a clear end in sight, and trying to keep up our own team morale as our public health professionals burn out under heavily extended work hours.”
She lamented that as a country we haven’t invested adequately in long-term public health preparedness — “You can’t beat an opponent by surging after it surges.”
She said that Singer is a “phenomenal leader” and noted that “Carroll County is fortunate to have him at the helm of their local pandemic response.”
Leading Through Dark Days
President Ronald Reagan once said “the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
Carroll’s first coronavirus outbreak was at a nursing home late March. Singer and his team were on the front lines, fighting a new virus that they didn’t know much about and didn’t have the staff and equipment to fight. Sixty-six residents initially tested positive at a Mt. Airy facility.
“The nursing home was a proving ground because it was the first major outbreak in the state. We learned a lot of lessons,” Singer said.
Singer said that a team from the Health Department had visited that nursing home knowing there were likely a few infections, but then “everything fell apart quickly” in a very short time, and almost the whole facility was infected. Once people are infected, Singer said, there is no way to un-infect them. Singer said there were people in that facility who were sick and who they knew were likely going to die, but it would take a week or more for them to succumb to the illness. “I struggled with that — that was tough,” Singer said.
“If you’ve been in horrible situations and gotten through them, it helps prepare you for future horrible things,” Singer said. “Having been in the military — in Iraq and Afghanistan — it helps prepare you for what is next. I can’t say enough about what the military did for me in teaching me how to lead people.”
The days following the initial outbreak at the nursing home were chaos. Singer laid out a horrific scene of people dying, of families desperately trying to learn the status of family members, of nursing home staff too sick or too scared to come to work, of fears that equipment or supplies would run out, of trying to triage the sick. He said there were heroes — volunteer doctors and nurses who agreed to go to the nursing home to help care for the sick, and first responders who were transporting patients and bodies out of the facility multiple times a day.
As national media outlets hovered on site and Health Department staff were overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness, Singer said he was making hundreds of phone calls a day over a three- to four-day period trying to get assistance.
“I was trying to let people know the urgency of how fast we needed help on-site,” Singer said. “It was heartbreaking for us to think that there were people that needed help that we couldn’t provide the level of help that they needed. That was my most difficult moment.”
Ultimately, the state sent in National Guard assistance, the county set up its mobile command center, and a triage process was established to get patients the care they needed. When all was said and done, 88 residents and 47 staff members were infected, resulting in 31 fatalities.
“We had a lot of structures in place and relationships that were already established, and that was key in getting us through this,” Singer said. “Unfortunately there were things none of us could have foreseen.”
Singer said there were many lessons learned in that first outbreak. He said that while Carroll County suffered through an unimaginable situation, the experience and lessons learned helped inform state protocols for protecting nursing homes in the future.
Leigh Broderick began working at Carroll’s Health Department in 1990. He is now the director of environmental health. He said Singer is known to have a “straightforward manner” — “able to have very frank discussions and work through some difficult situations.” According to Broderick, Singer’s commitment and passion about his work went “into hyperdrive with the arrival of the pandemic.”
Susan Doyle is a nurse at the Health Department and has worked with Singer over the last 20 years, the last several years focusing on combatting the opioid epidemic.
“Ed makes himself a part of the workgroup, not the leader of the workgroup. He leads by taking action to address issues, not just passing issues on for others to address. He does not back away from contentious issues or people who say it can’t be done. He provides the necessary autonomy to the leadership staff who work for him,” Doyle said.
Coronavirus arrived in Carroll County not long before Garrett Hoover took over as president of Carroll Hospital. Hoover, who took the reins at the end of March, said that one of the things that really impressed him when he arrived was the level of collaboration between the hospital and the Health Department. He said that isn’t always the case, and that in many communities the relationship is actually a bit contentious.
“That level of collaboration and partnership is really refreshing,” Hoover said. “We’ve had that instrumental relationship and open communications from the beginning, and it helps us monitor the pandemic in real time, to understand what is happening locally and in the state and to develop strategies to make sure we’re in alignment.”
Commissioner Wantz said “the pandemic was on no radar anywhere and took us all by surprise when it reared its ugly head.” He said Singer has worked tirelessly to make sure we are employing best practices in Carroll County, “and the numbers prove that he has done extremely well … especially considering there is no playbook or script for this unfortunate disease.”
Middle Ground — Where No One is Happy
Singer said that he is most proud of his staff, which has risen to the challenge over the last year and done whatever he’s asked. “And I’ve asked them to do some hard things.”
“I’ve put them completely out of their comfort zones,” Singer said. “And they’ve stepped up, figured out how to get it done, and done a great job of meeting whatever the need was at that time.”
One of the biggest frustrations for Singer over the past year has been the divisiveness and nastiness towards Health Department staff. He said he wants the department to be seen as an agency that brings people together in the community, that is making sure people are getting the most accurate information, that is trying to guide people and protect the community while allowing people the individual freedoms they want. He said it’s a very difficult balancing act: No matter what the guidance is — to open or close, to allow sports or not, to go hybrid education or virtual — someone is always unhappy with the decision.
“I understand why people can be so angry and mean right now, but it’s really difficult for our staff, who every day has to deal with someone who is unhappy,” Singer said. “When you’re in those confrontational situations every single day, it really wears on you.”
Singer said he can handle the personal attacks on him, but he said his real struggle is with the burden being put on his staff. “They don’t deserve the hatefulness they get,” he said.
“Unfortunately, people have just become very nasty with each other and us as we try to find that middle ground,” Singer said. “It puts us in a situation where everyone is unhappy with us. Everyone is divided.”
As a public figure, Wantz has had his fair share of negative feedback from the community. He said Singer has been transparent and direct in his decisions and guidance. “It takes a strong leader to put public opinion aside when it comes to giving strong answers, and Singer’s approach has been spot-on.”
Above All Else: Family
When the world seems to be crumbling — whether it’s from the chaos of a virus pandemic or the opioid epidemic — Singer said he finds reprieve in the comfort of his family. This year he and Michelle celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Currently living in Manchester, Singer said he’s fortunate that his son, Eddie, and daughter, Natalie, now grown and living in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have been spending time at home during the pandemic.
“I’m working long hours, but my wife and kids are teleworking, and whenever I come home, they are there,” Singer said. “Family is the most important thing in my life. I take that from my mom.”
Michelle — who is in her 31st year of teaching at Liberty High School — said she can attest to the fact that Ed works hard and, in turn, likes to play hard.
“Even with the pandemic, he’s been able to relax some,” she said. “One of his favorite escapes is going out on his jet skis — there isn’t as much phone service out there.”
Singer said he likes playing all sorts of games and almost any outdoor activity. Whether it’s jumping on the trampoline in his back yard or taking a ride in his Jeep with the top off, he doesn’t have to look very hard for ways to de-stress.
And while he’s not perfect — Michelle admitted he leaves his shoes in the middle of the floor and doesn’t always get the grease off the pans when does the dishes — she said there are far more successes than failures.
“He has always been a great dad,” Michelle said. “After one of his deployments, he went on an awesome bicycle trip with our son. They took five days to bike from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., on the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal Trail. Another time he became ‘team mom’ for our daughter’s high school team. The young ladies always wanted him to wear his size-12 pink Crocs and bake them chocolate chip cookies.”
Finding the Good, Looking Towards a Post-COVID Era
While the really hard lessons were learned early on in the pandemic, and we look forward to more effective treatments and a vaccine, Singer said that he has some concerns about what the coming months will look like. He said when the pandemic hit, a lot of services came to a grinding halt. And while he’s working to get folks back to their regular jobs, there are a lot of unknowns due to funding questions and potential staffing gaps.
“We want to get back to providing services again. We want to get to the point where we’re working on our strategic plans and working on programs to meet the needs in our community,” he said.
Singer jokes that he would retire if he could afford to, and while there may be some truth there, it’s also clear that he feels there is still work for him to do. He said he is looking forward to continuing on the progress the Health Department and its partners are making in the opioid crisis, and from a strategic standpoint he wants to put the department in a good position to move forward before he steps down.
In spite of the chaos and occasional negativity, Singer said that it has been amazing to see everyone who has been involved in the response come together. He added that it would be impossible to mention all the good things that have happened in the community this year. He said that, overall, he feels an overwhelming sense of thankfulness.
“I’m thankful that I have my health and my family has their health. So many people have experienced so much loss during this pandemic, and I’m thankful we’ve been able to somewhat limit the loss,” Singer said. “Whenever we complain how much we’re working, I’m thankful I have a job. It’s a reminder to count your blessings.”