Health Department Chief Abruptly Retires; Robert Harmon Steps Away from $160K-a-Year Job amid Controversy over TB Outbreak

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy Jones

The director of the Duval County Health Department "retired" two days after a Times-Union story detailed the agency's pattern of concealing information about a years-long tuberculosis outbreak.

Robert Harmon, 68, sent a two-sentence letter to his boss just before 1:30 p.m. Tuesday saying he was leaving the $160,000-a-year job he held for six years.

His letter did not mention the reason for his unexpected decision to retire.

Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong, Harmon's boss, did not respond to requests for comment by email and phone to ask what brought about Harmon's retirement, which is effective Wednesday.

Also not returning calls and emails to the Times-Union were Charles Griggs, who is Harmon's director of public information, and Harmon himself.

Jessica Hammonds, press secretary for the state health department, said Harmon's departure was a personal choice and declined to comment if it was linked to the newspaper's story. She said she would notify the Times-Union if Harmon received any type of severance package.

Sunday's Times-Union story detailed instances where health department officials were either slow to release information or failed to release public information to Folio Weekly about the outbreak.

The TB crisis began in 2008 at Golden Retreat, a Jacksonville assisted-living facility, and spread to the homeless population. Since then, 14 people among the 100awho had the active form of that strain of the disease have died.

Last November, Harmon wrote an editorial Dec. 20 for Folio Weekly, which said the health department notifies the public "via news media in order to encourage unknown contacts to be tested" in cases such as TB investigations in schools.

However, Harmon's department did not notify the media about a contact investigation for an active case of tuberculosis at Lee High School five months earlier on the last day of school in 2011.

Getting information about the outbreak from the Duval County Health Department has been challenging for months.

A Palm Beach Post story in July said the Duval County Health Department hid the outbreak from the public.

That same month, Armstrong, Harmon and other health department officials met with Times-Union editors and reporters to discuss the problems.

Armstrong, who had started his job two months earlier, said the state and local health departments would improve their transparency and streamline their communications process.

Last week, the Times-Union had a conference call with members of the state and local health departments' communication offices to discuss the inability to get answers for Sunday's story.

Health department officials initiated the conversation after they became upset because Times-Union reporters went to Griggs' office after he failed to return several calls and emails for comment over a month's time.

Armstrong named Bonnie Sorensen, director of the Volusia County Health Department, as the interim director in Duval. …