BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum announced on Monday, March 8, that he's chosen Nizar Wehbi to be North Dakota's top health official.
Wehbi's appointment as state health officer comes after three people abruptly resigned from the position in 2020 as North Dakota weathered the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wehbi has been serving as deputy director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Center for Health Policy, where he conducts research and policy analysis on the health care system and is an assistant professor teaching health administration and health policy.
He earned his medical degree at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences and received a master's degree in public health and business administration from the University of Nebraska.
“Dr. Wehbi brings the right combination of experience in clinical medicine, policy development and health administration that we need to create the best public health system in the country right here in North Dakota,” Burgum said in a statement.
Wehbi is not currently a licensed physician in the U.S., said Mike Nowatzki, a spokesman for Burgum's office.
Two bills under consideration in the North Dakota Legislature would require that the state health officer "at the time of appointment must be a physician with substantive private or public administrative experience and public health experience."
If such a requirement was imposed, Nowatzki said, Wehbi "would be eligible to obtain his (medical) license in North Dakota."
Wehbi will be paid $340,000 annually, a salary determined based on a market study of physicians with public health experience, Nowatzki said, noting that Wehbi will also receive a $5,000 hiring bonus and reimbursement for moving expenses up to $5,000.
Dirk Wilke, the interim state health officer, has served in the position since September. Wilke, who is not a licensed physician and does not have a medical background, was in the post when the pandemic hit the state hard in November. For a stretch last fall, North Dakota had the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the U.S.
The state health officer has the power to issue public health orders, like the statewide mask mandate Wilke signed in November that required North Dakotans to wear face coverings in businesses, indoor public places and outdoor public settings where social distancing could not be maintained.
Wilke will return to his position as the Department of Health's chief of staff, the governor's office said.
In May, Mylynn Tufte stepped down from the role of state health officer to return to the private sector, Gov. Doug Burgum said at the time. Tufte, who has experience as a registered nurse, served three years in the state health officer position.
After Tufte's abrupt resignation, Andrew Stahl, a Bismarck physician, stepped down just three months into the job. Reports at the time stated Stahl and Burgum disagreed on how to address the pandemic.
Then in September, Fargo physician Paul Mariani resigned 11 days into the position and just one day after Burgum rescinded an order that required close contacts of known COVID-19 cases to quarantine. This move was not in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and drew harsh criticism.
Mariani said "the circumstances around the handling of the order made my position untenable," according to a news release at the time of his resignation.
Wehbi will assume his new position on May 1 and earn almost $90,000 more annually compared to Mariani, the last person to hold the position not under an interim appointment. Mariani had a salary of $252,000 each year, while Stahl was under contract for $261,000 annually.
Wehbi will now be the fifth person to serve in the role amid the pandemic. He will oversee the state's pandemic response and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, likely having to confront "vaccine hesitancy" among residents.
"When it comes to health, North Dakota can be the leader and role model for the entire nation," Wehbi said in a statement Monday.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.