When I read Jim Fossel’s Sunday column, it saddened me. His criticism of the efforts of Gov. Mills and the Legislature is unwarranted. It is pure politics at a time when we need to be working together – and most of us are doing just that. The last thing Maine people need right now is political bickering. And for certain, we do not need the kind of low blow that his column represented. We are better than that.

There are many reasons why former Gov. Paul LePage does not deserve praise, especially right now. For me, one of the biggest reasons is his attempt to destroy Maine’s public health nursing service.

During LePage’s time in the Blaine House, the number of public health nurses in Maine fell from 59 to below 20. These are the nurses who set up more than 200 immunization clinics around the state in 2009, mostly at public schools, to vaccinate people as the H1N1 virus was sweeping across our state. They were visiting newborns whose mothers were addicted to opioids at a time when nearly 10 percent of babies were suffering from that condition – about 1,000 to 1,150 each year. These nurses were doing their jobs, without fanfare or public acknowledgment. Working with their colleagues at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, they were monitoring public health and doing their best to keep us safe.

By 2017, six years into his tenure, LePage had almost succeeded in eradicating public health nursing here. He tried to cut their funding, but the Legislature resisted. So, he and then-Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew created an exceptionally difficult, even toxic, work environment for these nurses. Mayhew stripped them of their offices at DHHS, and of all administrative support. LePage refused to allow the CDC to hire new nurses as experienced nurses retired, left or were driven out. When these nurses had to travel long distances to do newborn home visits or tend to a tuberculosis outbreak, LePage criticized them for not seeing enough patients each day, calling them “inefficient” and “too expensive.”

Fortunately, the Legislature responded in 2017, by passing L.D. 1108, An Act to Restore Public Health Nursing Services. The governor vetoed that bill, but legislators overrode his veto by a wide margin, with strong, bipartisan support. But LePage’s distaste for public health nursing persisted, and very few nurses were hired before he left office.

Gov. Mills and CDC Director Nirav Shah understand the vital importance of the role played by public health nurses, especially at a time like this. While we don’t yet have a fully staffed service, it is being rebuilt now – under stressful conditions. And, in the Legislature’s recent emergency supplemental budget, we appropriated an additional $1 million for the CDC, expressly for public health nursing. Public health nurses are part of our first line of defense against the spread of infectious disease like COVID-19. Thank goodness we are bringing them back.

Nationally, we are witnessing the effects of failure to understand the importance of public health infrastructure – both people and material. In Maine, we are scrambling to find the people, masks, gowns and other protective gear that we need to fight the coronavirus. Maine people and businesses are stepping up by sewing masks, delivering meals to neighbors, supporting the logistics of large-scale food distribution and in other ways. These volunteer efforts are great, but the government also has a critical role in both preparing for and responding to crises.

I hope that Mr. Fossel will turn his attention, and his pen, to describing the work that we are doing together to help each other get through this extraordinarily difficult time.

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