An out-of-state candidate has turned down an offer to become the state epidemiologist, leaving a critical vacancy in a position that coordinates the state’s strategy for handling infectious disease outbreaks.

“The job was offered and the person did not accept,” John Martins, Maine Center for Disease Control spokesman, said in an email response Wednesday to questions from the Portland Press Herald. Martins declined to identify who was offered the job or the reasons it was turned down, saying it was a confidential personnel matter.

The CDC’s failure to fill the post comes at a time of turmoil for the agency, which has been criticized over a document-shredding scandal and its response to an Ebola scare last fall. Now the CDC faces the prospect of $10 million in budget cuts and program reductions under the two-year state budget recently proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Dr. Sheila Pinette, Maine CDC director, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, but had told the Press Herald last fall that she expected the job candidate to be hired by the end of 2014. Pinette is an internal medicine doctor and does not specialize in infectious diseases, but she was temporarily handling the position since epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears resigned in May 2014 to take a job with the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The epidemiologist job pays between $120,000 and $166,000 per year, depending on education and experience, which is similar to other top positions in other states.

“Certainly, physician positions are challenging (to fill) because of the competitive environment and their salaries,” said Mary Mayhew, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner. “I think it is a number of factors” that led to the candidate rejecting the offer.

Mayhew, whose department oversees the CDC, didn’t indicate on Wednesday whether the state would move quickly to hire an infectious disease expert.

THE QUARANTINE FIGHT

While Maine won’t reveal why the job was turned down, the state was in the final stages of negotiations with the job candidate in the fall, at about the same time Maine was embroiled in a high-profile dispute with nurse Kaci Hickox over Ebola quarantine procedures. Hickox won the fight in state court against the Maine CDC’s attempt to place rigorous restrictions on her movements for a 21-day quarantine period.

Hickox’s view was backed by many public health experts in Maine, who signed a letter arguing against the Maine CDC’s quarantine rules, saying the rules were not based on science and unnecessarily restrictive.

Hickox, reached on Wednesday by the Press Herald, said she could not speculate why the person rejected the job, but said that it may not have helped that the Maine CDC was in the news trying to enforce a quarantine that did not hold up to scientific standards.

“I’m an epidemiologist, and I know personally that I would be very hesitant to work for an organization that was putting forth non-scientific based policies,” said Hickox, who has a master’s in public health, worked for the U.S. CDC and treated Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.

Martins wrote that there is no timetable to hire a state epidemiologist, but that the position was not eliminated as part of Gov. Paul LePage’s budget.

Meanwhile, Martins said that the state is finalizing a contract with “Maine-based experts” to provide epidemiology services that are more comprehensive than the measures that were in place after Sears left. The state also relied on a similar contract with health experts last year, he said.

Martins said he couldn’t release the financial details of the contract until it begins Feb. 1.

MANY VACANCIES AT CDC

Mayhew said relaunching the job search for an epidemiologist wasn’t an immediate priority.

“At this point we are moving forward with this contract and we need to take a look at what the next step needs to be around providing this role,” Mayhew said.

The failure to attract an epidemiologist also comes at a time when Gov. LePage has proposed eliminating $10 million from the Maine CDC’s budget. The state is currently operating with many vacant CDC positions, including an unfilled deputy state epidemiologist and vacancies among about 25 percent of its 50 public health nurses, the front-line workers who respond to infectious disease outbreaks and work on prevention. In recent years, Maine has experienced surging numbers of pertussis cases, and its high rates of parents opting out of vaccinations for children has some public health experts worried that the state could be on the verge of major infectious disease outbreaks.

Dr. Lani Graham, one of the health professionals who signed the letter supporting Hickox and a former Maine state health officer, said she’s worried that the state’s public health infrastructure is threatened on a number of fronts, and that it’s affecting the state’s ability to attract top people.

“You see these danger signs. I hate to see Maine going down this road, and moving away from a strong public health system,” Graham said. “It absolutely is something to be worried about.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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