FRAMINGHAM — A legend. An innovator. A model. A visionary. A god.
The descriptors assigned to Sam Wong by public health leaders throughout the state universally reflect a profound admiration of a man who likely spent his last day as Framingham’s health director this week.
The city announced late Tuesday that Wong is taking an indefinite medical leave from his post, one he’s held since 2017. He is unlikely to return.
“I’m exhausted,” Wong told the Daily News by phone on Wednesday. “I’m physically, mentally and even sometimes spiritually exhausted. I have given everything I’ve got for the city for the past 10 months and then some, and it has taken a toll on my health and it is to the point where I have to take a step back.”
Public health officials statewide have expressed deep sadness, worry and even some anger at his departure.
In addition to working essentially nonstop since mid-March, when the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Framingham, Wong — like other public health officials nationwide — has labored to keep the pandemic under control amid an undercurrent of fatigue, skepticism and even resentment among residents about public health guidance and restrictions.
Residents critical of Wong, who holds a doctorate in biology, repeatedly referred to him on Facebook as “Dr. Wrong.”
He also weathered public criticism from some city councilors who alleged his department wasn’t doing enough to control the spread of the virus in Framingham.
“As we sit here bathed in red, and other communities are finding a way to succeed, I frankly expected a presentation that said, ‘Hey, we’re failing so far. Here’s what we’re going to do differently tomorrow to fix it,’ and I’m not hearing any of that and it is of grave concern to me,” District 4 City Councilor Michael Cannon told Wong during a Sept. 15 City Council meeting after the health director gave a presentation about the city’s pandemic response.
Cannon said Thursday he supported Wong, and that his response to Wong’s presentation was fair criticism intended to drive the city to take stronger action to reach out to Framingham’s Portuguese and Spanish-speaking residents, who have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Cannon said his primary frustration was what he alleged was a lack of support of Wong by Mayor Yvonne Spicer, though Wong said this week Spicer supported his work.
“We were not succeeding,” Cannon said. “If I had not commented on that or pressed, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
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Michael Hugo, a former member of the Framingham Board of Health who serves on the Executive Committee for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, thinks Wong essentially became a proxy target for councilors critical of Spicer.
“Sam ran the most high-functioning department under Mayor Spicer’s administration and was the most visible department head because of the pandemic,” he said. “I think that because of the divide between the mayor and the council, Sam was an easy target for councilors who don’t support the mayor.”
‘Such a loss’
William Murphy is the public health director in neighboring Sudbury. He said Wong was fighting the pandemic in a city with a large, diverse population, of which a significant percentage faced structural inequities that accelerated the spread of the virus.
“Sam is not only a very well educated and credentialed public health official, he’s very, very experienced, a true leader among his peers, and I really can’t see anybody who could have done a better job than him,” Murphy said of Wong’s work in Framingham.
Melrose Public Health Director Ruth Clay, a past president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association who has worked in public health for 34 years, called Wong “the health director every community should hope to have.”
“If they don’t like Sam, they’re not going to like any health director because he’s like the best in the state, so at a time when all health directors are super-stressed because this has been going on for so long, this is shameful. Shameful,” Clay told the Daily News. “They should be embarrassed. What other health director is going to want to go work in a community that treats their health director like that at this time? Shameful.”
Diane Chalifoux, president of the Massachusetts Environmental Health Association, said Wong’s departure has been “devastating” to other public health servants in the state. Wong’s team at the Health Department was in tears on learning of his leave, but the ripple effects of the news were statewide, she said.
“Sam, his integrity, how hard he has worked, his dedication to public health, it seems to have been very much perverted,” she said. “We feel that this is such a loss to the city of Framingham.”
Chalifoux said she couldn’t have completed the work she’s done over the course of the past 10 months without the support of her jurisdiction.
“But that’s what he did,” she said.
“Our public health officials are really upset by this,” Chalifoux added. “They just feel like they don’t understand why people don’t see Sam for the person that he is and for his brilliance and his ability to bring people together. Just look at his history in public health. He’s been applauded and supported by so many because of his energy, his public health knowledge. It’s heartbreaking to see such a legend in his field be dragged down by baseless rumors.”
Norwood Public Health Director Sigalle Reiss, current president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association, called Wong one of the smartest people she knows, and one of the kindest, a combination she called rare. He’s an innovator, she said, someone who is always thinking of interesting solutions to tough problems. She, too, said his leave was devastating.
“Public health doesn’t work unless you have the community behind you,” Reiss said.
Claude-Alix Jacob is the chief public health officer of the Cambridge Health Department, a position he’s held for more than 13 years. He’s also a past chair of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, whose members include nearly 3,000 local health departments across the United States.
Wong is respected for his work in public health nationwide, Jacob said.
“Sam’s reach is not just in Massachusetts, it’s been national because he was the president of Massachusetts Health Officers Association for two years and represented Massachusetts across national networks,” Jacob said.
“He’s one of the architects of modernizing the public health system here in the commonwealth,” said Jacob, who called Wong “a consummate advocate.” “It’s a huge loss, not only in Massachusetts. This is from the vantage point of leadership supporting local health departments across the country.”
Jacob has worked with Wong closely throughout the pandemic. He and Wong attend weekly virtual meetings during which the health directors of Massachusetts’ 14 largest municipalities discuss coronavirus response.
“Sam’s forte has been to draw our attention to where the rubber meets the road,” Jacob said. “Early on, he signaled to us what was happening in communities of color, the disproportionate burden of COVID in Framingham. That resonated with a number of us because of what we were seeing in our cities and towns.”
Jacob said he followed Wong’s lead in breaking down Cambridge’s virus data by census tract to better understand relative disparities within his city’s borders when it comes to the spread of the pandemic.
“Sam brought that to our attention, and now I’ve drilled down to the census tract level,” Jacob said. “I want to commend and applaud and thank Sam for reminding us, don’t just think on the aggregate, let’s get down to the relative impact of how COVID is playing unevenly in communities.”
Several public officials interviewed for this story said Wong’s quick action to build and sustain a team of medically-trained local contact tracers and to bring free COVID-19 testing to Framingham were among his greatest contributions during the pandemic.
“His innovative ideas have saved countless lives among our city, have fed hundreds of people who had no other means to get meals, have brought testing sites to us when we were being overlooked by the state, and he has brought the most current scientific data to the analysis of how to protect our citizenry,” Hugo said.
Many also cited him as a leader focused on addressing regional needs during a pandemic that doesn’t respect municipal borders. Even before the pandemic, Wong reliably spearheaded grant initiatives that helped health departments across MetroWest serve their communities.
Shaun McAuliffe, a Framingham resident who serves as Hopkinton’s health director, called Wong a mentor, and said among the first things he learned from Wong was the importance of bringing in grant money that would improve the region’s health as a whole.
“He consistently delivered several times more in grant money and awards than he was withdrawing in salary,” McAuliffe said. “You can’t argue with how significant an impact he had on the region.”
It was Wong who organized a regular call between health directors in the area to ensure municipalities weren’t duplicating pandemic response efforts that could run more efficiently with cross-border collaboration, McAuliffe said.
A large percentage of Sudbury’s workforce, Murphy said, hails from Framingham, so Wong’s work had an impact on his community.
“What the pandemic has exposed is how interconnected we are with our neighboring communities,” Murphy said. “Losing Sam, I think we’re all now concerned that some of the attention will be taken away from this interconnectedness and how we really need to work together.”
‘The fatigue is real’
Jacob said that 10 months in, frontline workers in public health are coping with severe fatigue heightened by the politicization of the pandemic, which has turned simple public health measures like wearing a mask into markers of political values for some Americans.
“What Sam is experiencing is more common than people realize,” Jacob said, adding that roughly 180 health directors nationwide have retired, resigned or been fired. “What we’ve taken for granted is that, because of the innovation here in the commonwealth, we assume that that stuff doesn’t happen here, and Sam is an illustration of the fact that even in Massachusetts, we’re not immune from these political undertones.”
Jacob said he was saddened by Wong’s decision to step back from his role, but not surprised.
“We understand,” Jacob said. “The fatigue is real. It’s a thankless job already and you throw a pandemic on top of it. There is concern about the potential erosion of leadership for local health departments because this pandemic has been treated more politically than scientifically.”
“Months ago, there were thunder claps and people were appreciating the space we occupied, but now public health professionals are seen as villains,” Jacob added. “That wear and tear does impact leadership and staff in these departments, and that’s the bigger concern. We’ve got to figure out a way to support one another, but sadly, in a number of spaces, this has become a political football and the community at large hurts from that.”
Nicole Doak, founder of a Facebook-based mutual aid group in Framingham who has relied on Wong to answer questions from residents throughout the pandemic, said she will be feeling that hurt, and so will other residents of Framingham.
“I hope he knows that for so many people, we valued him and we appreciated everything that he did,” Doak said. “Maybe we weren’t as vocal as the other people, but we feel just as strongly in our appreciation of what he’s done.”
MetroWest Nonprofit Network Executive Director Anna Cross called Wong “one of the most intelligent, competent, compassionate leaders we have.”
Cross, who credited Wong with leading the Health Department in launching an emergency food program for Framingham residents this spring, recounted one anecdote she said exemplified his work. It was a moment that also stuck with Framingham Assistant Health Director Alexandra DePalo, who will take over Wong’s post.
It happened one sunny day last summer.
Drivers tasked with taking bags of free food to residents in need had already left with the day’s deliveries when the program’s coordinators got a call from a family of 10 in desperate need of food.
Wong, who had just gotten off one of the countless calls that filled his days, immediately volunteered to make the delivery himself.
“Him doing that means you have a very committed health director who said, ‘Oh, my God, this is not going to wait until tomorrow,’” DePalo said when interviewed for a story about the food program.
“But I don’t think the family knows who the delivery person is, because there is no in-person contact,” she added. “The whole point is not to know who it is. The whole point is that the family calls in, and they get what they need.”
Jeannette Hinkle is a reporter for the Daily News. Reach her at [email protected].