Second top Wisconsin health officer to leave position in six months

MADISON – Wisconsin’s state health officer is leaving the state health department as the coronavirus pandemic is at its worst — the second person to leave the position in six months. 

Stephanie Smiley, who served as state health officer on an interim basis since May, told colleagues in a letter this week she would be leaving the Wisconsin Department of Health Services next week. 

“I have accepted a position outside of state service in order to focus more energy towards my health and my family — aspects of my life that I have neglected for far too long,” Smiley told colleagues. 

“To say 2020 has been hard is an understatement. What has unfolded has been very heavy — a pandemic, a reckoning with systemic racism and racial injustices, record unemployment, on top of behavioral health and substance use disorder crises and the other public health challenges in Wisconsin,” she wrote in the letter.

“And while our work is never easy, it has been particularly difficult as public health practitioners this year. That said, we can feel all of this and we can also be grateful for what is good in the world.”

Track COVID-19 in Wisconsin:See the latest numbers and trends

Smiley leaves the department after working there for two decades, according to Health Secretary Andrea Palm. She worked as the department’s communication director for four years beginning in 2011 and as the department’s bureau of communicable diseases director since 2015. 

Her departure also comes after she was recently criticized by a Republican lawmaker over her credentials to hold the positions, which include degrees in art teacher education and homeland security studies but not degrees in medicine.

After state health officer Jeanne Ayers left the department in May, Smiley took over her duties as state health officer and administrator for the division of public health. 

Ayers told the Journal Sentinel in June she was asked to resign from the department in early May and wasn’t given a reason why. Palm and department officials haven’t answered questions about Ayers’ departure. 

Elizabeth Goodsitt, spokeswoman for the department, said Smiley’s replacements are “equally as capable to do the same until a permanent administrator is hired.”

“To that end, we have a transition plan in place, and are actively working to fill that role. We are committed to ensuring a smooth transition as we continue to respond to the global COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk will take over the position of state health officer on an interim basis, Smiley said in the letter. 

“I am in awe of the unquestionable courage and character of you all. As public health officials, you have repeatedly needed to deliver bad news that has sparked fear, frustration, anxiety and criticism. And despite all of this, you and your staff have risen to the occasion and continue to do what you can to battle through this,” Smiley wrote. 

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.