Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver, who has led the state’s health agency throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, will step down from the post next week at the urging of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin.
Oliver, who in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch had expressed interest in continuing to run the Virginia Department of Health into the new administration, told staffers during a call Wednesday that he had been formally notified of Youngkin’s decision by the incoming governor’s transition.
Oliver will leave his post on Jan. 14, the day before Youngkin’s inauguration, according to two people familiar with the call. It’s not clear who will replace Oliver, or who will serve as the next health secretary. Youngkin’s transition did not respond to a request for comment.
Virginia, like the rest of the nation, is facing a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths fueled by the highly infectious omicron variant.
The decision is not entirely surprising given Youngkin’s criticisms of the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he has described as heavy-handed. Youngkin opposes vaccine mandates and has criticized mask mandates, public restrictions on businesses and curfews.
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Oliver was a key adviser to Gov. Ralph Northam as the administration weighed its public restrictions.
In line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oliver in August issued a mask mandate for the state’s K-12 schools, which Youngkin has criticized and vowed to undo — even as COVID-19 cases surge.
Despite their differences, Oliver said in an interview last month that he wished to remain in his job to provide continuity at the VDH as the pandemic continues to rage, and to finish overseeing key operational improvements at the agency, including technical improvements in the way it analyzes public health data.
“We’re now in a position where that work really needs to continue with the pandemic still raging,” Oliver said last month. “We’re also thinking about ways to improve public health and build the public health system that this state deserves. I feel that’s work I started and that I’d like to see through to the end.”
Oliver and the state’s health agency have fielded significant criticism over the handling of the pandemic. Still, Virginia has fared better than other states, particularly its neighbors to the south when it comes to rates of infection and death.
Early on, a lack of coordination with private testing vendors stunted the state’s ability to test enough Virginians for the virus, which left the state in the dark about the spread of the virus and about deadly consequences in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Throughout 2020, the state faced criticism from the business community over restrictions that it thought changed too suddenly, and without much clarity.
The state later stumbled as it began to distribute vaccines at a slower rate than any of its neighbors and almost every other state — delaying safety for vulnerable Virginians. Consistently, people of color had a harder time accessing resources and information to fend off illness or economic struggle.
Among its successes, Virginia now ranks 10th among states in people who are fully vaccinated, and hospitals in the state have not overflowed to the point of deploying the state’s emergency plan for alternate health care facilities.
In a statement, Oliver said it had been an honor to serve as commissioner.
“For the past two years, Virginia has faced the biggest public health crisis of our lifetime,” he said.
“My sincerest thanks to the thousands of Virginia Department of Health employees who have labored day in and day out during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the Commonwealth safe.
“My sincerest thanks to Governor Northam for his leadership and for making sure we had the tools to do our job. We are working with Governor-elect Youngkin’s team to ensure an orderly transition.”