Dr. LaQuandra S. Nesbitt
Dr. LaQuandra S. Nesbitt

Dr. LaQuandra S. Nesbitt wants District residents to know she feels deeply humbled to have served as the city’s “chief doctor” while grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and initiating a push for health care equity for all Washingtonians but said the time had come for her to move on.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to be the director of the Department of Health,” said Nesbitt, who D.C. Mayor Bowser announced on July 6 will be leaving her post at the end of the month. 

“I have served in the health department before as the senior deputy director from 2008-2011,” Nesbitt said. “I have had great opportunities and a combination of experiences here and in Louisville leading its health department, teaching health policy on the university level and working to improve the health of communities.”

Nesbitt took the helm of the health department in January 2015 shortly after Bowser became mayor. Before the pandemic, Nesbitt became known in the city for her work in reducing the HIV/AIDS rate, making the Office of Health Equity a serious addresser of health disparities, stressing the importance of Black maternal health and reducing the District’s infant mortality rate, particularly among African Americans. However, during the pandemic, residents became accustomed to her calm and scientific manner of dealing with the virus.

Handling the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nesbitt said the coronavirus appeared to be different from anything she had dealt with before.

“I am familiar with pandemics such as H1N1 while I was in the District before and Ebola while in Louisville,” she said. “But those diseases were nothing compared to COVID.”

Nesbitt said while District residents have praised her for the work she and the department put in to minimize the impact of the coronavirus, she credits the people themselves for their patience and tolerance especially during the early part of the crisis.

“I want to thank the residents for doing everything we asked them to do and we know it was not easy,” she said. “We thank them for not having mass gatherings when we asked them not to. We thank them for staying at home like we requested.”

“We really thank them for their cooperation during the Memorial Day weekend in 2020 when other places were opening up and we did not. Residents also stepped up during the first winter of COVID in 2021 when they got vaccinated and complied with coronavirus protocols,” she said. 

Coronavirus.dc.gov, the District’s website on the virus, reported progress confronting the disease with statistics such as of July 12, with 195.2 infections per 100,000 residents, a precipitous drop from 866.2 cases per 100,000 in Jan. 15. 

Regarding hospitalizations, a rate of 0.3 per 100,000 on July 12 represents a significant drop in comparison to a rate of 38.7 per 100,000 on Jan. 15, according to the website.

Nesbitt emphasizes that the pandemic hasn’t disappeared in the city. She hopes her successor focuses on putting the spotlight on the populations who are vulnerable to the virus as a means of strongly controlling and eventually eradicating it.

Health Equity Office Tasked with a Mission

Nesbitt knew of the health disparities in the District when she joined the Bowser administration. The Office of Health Equity had the task of studying the problem and coming up with ways to address it.

“We could no longer ignore inequities,” Nesbitt said. “Health equities encompass whether people have economic opportunities and easy access to good and healthy food and I wanted to make sure the department had access to those discussions.”

She said working with the public education system to provide health services at the school level on a consistent basis emerged as a goal as well as the equitable distribution of resources. Nesbitt said she noticed the health resources went to the communities who spoke loudly for them as opposed to those that needed them.

“We want to put the resources where they are needed, not to the ones who have the loudest voices,” she said. “We noticed neighborhoods of color weren’t as vocal as far as their needs were. This was particularly the case with maternal and baby health services.”

Nesbitt said she changed the mode of delivery for some health services from home visits to an outside-the-home model, which seemed to work well for Black patients. She also noted virtual visits utilized during the pandemic became well-received among Blacks.

Addressing the HIV/AIDS rate, she said educating and treating heterosexual women has become a focus but still bemoans the presence of the disease, which can be treated but has no cure.

Nesbitt said she has no solid plans when she leaves her position. When asked who will succeed her, she said “that is up to Mayor Bowser.”

“I am still a public servant,” she said. “I definitely want to stay in D.C. The city has embraced me.”

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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