BISMARCK — North Dakota interim State Health Officer Dr. Paul Mariani has resigned after less than a month on the job. He's the third person to step down from the position during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement of Mariani's departure on Friday evening, Sept. 25, comes a day after the state rescinded an order requiring close contacts of known COVID-19 cases to quarantine. Gov. Doug Burgum and other Republican leaders faced intense backlash after the order was expanded Wednesday. Critics of the quarantine mandate said a provision in the order that meant violators could face Class B misdemeanor charges was an overreach by government.
The move to rescind the order breaks with guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that say close contacts should get tested for COVID-19, and "asymptomatic contacts testing negative should self-quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure." The state still recommends that close contacts quarantine when possible.
Mariani said in a news release on Friday that the events of the last few days provoked his resignation. Forum News Service could not reach the Fargo doctor for comment.
“While the governor and I agreed on the urgent need to isolate positives and quarantine close contacts in accordance with CDC guidelines, and that the amended order’s penalty provision was overly punitive, the circumstances around the handling of the order made my position untenable,” Mariani said.
Mariani's departure comes after two of his recent predecessors left the state's top public health role under mysterious circumstances. Last month, Dr. Andrew Stahl stepped down from the same position amid disagreements with the governor's office over the state's COVID-19 risk level designations. Mylynn Tufte abruptly resigned as state health officer in May. Burgum repeatedly refused to directly answer whether Tufte had been asked to resign.
Burgum, who called the now-rescinded quarantine order a "miscue," said in the Friday news release he is sad to see Mariani leave the role and thanked him for his "meaningful contributions."
"While Dr. Mariani’s tenure was short, we are grateful for his service and for jumping into the many complexities of this extremely challenging role," Burgum said. "We agreed that the amended close contact order’s penalty provisions – a misdemeanor as required by current state law – became a large and unforeseen distraction to our mission of slowing the spread of the coronavirus in our state.”
Shelley Lenz, who is running for governor on the Democratic-NPL ticket, charged her Republican opponent with throwing Mariani under the bus. The western North Dakota veterinarian, added that she doesn't know how Burgum will find a qualified state health officer after the resignations of Stahl and Mariani.
"There is a crisis of leadership, and we're in chaos," Lenz said. "It's basically politics versus professional ethics."