Dr. Monica Bharel, who has led Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health for the past six years, is stepping down from the post next month, the state announced Thursday.
Bharel has been at the helm of the department charged with leading the state’s COVID-19 response throughout the pandemic and appeared alongside Governor Charlie Baker at press conferences at the start of the outbreak. Bharel is the department’s longest-serving commissioner in more than two decades, according to a statement from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
Bharel, who is stepping down June 18, said in the statement that it is “the right time to begin a new chapter.”
“It has been an honor and privilege to serve residents of the Commonwealth as the state’s top physician and the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health,” Bharel said in the statement. “After serving in this role for more than six years, which is longer than any Public Health Commissioner has served in nearly a quarter of a century, it is the right time to begin a new chapter. DPH staff have helped make Massachusetts a national leader in COVID-19 testing and vaccination while demonstrating a tireless commitment to placing health equity front and center of that work.”
Margret Cooke, who is currently DPH’s deputy commissioner, will serve as interim commissioner. Cooke joined the department in 2015 as general counsel before becoming deputy commissioner, the statement said.
She spoke of her bout with the virus in an interview with the State House News Service in April 2020, describing the experience as “frightening” and saying she felt a range of symptoms. Bharel, her husband, and two children all contracted the virus.
“As I was experiencing all the symptoms I read about, I was learning firsthand what it felt like, how intense the muscle aches could be, how the eye pain could keep you up all night, what it means to try to eat when you’ve lost your sense of smell,” Bharel said in the interview.
Bharel worked from home for weeks after initially contracting the virus while she managed her symptoms and later returned to the DPH’s Boston offices.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bharel led the department through other public health challenges including the opioid epidemic, vaping associated lung disease, and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.
As commissioner, she oversees nearly 3,000 people and a department made up of eight offices and bureaus responsible for a range of programs, according to her biography on the state’s website.
In its statement, state officials lauded the department’s achievements during Bharel’s tenure, which included being awarded national accreditation status, launching the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and creating the Office of Population Health to highlight the impact of social determinants of health and unearth data disparities, among other initiatives.
“Commissioner Bharel’s steadfast work ethic and commitment to health equity has made a lasting impact on hundreds of thousands of residents of the Commonwealth,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said in the statement. “Her tireless advocacy for the public health of all residents helped the Administration navigate the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic with compassion. On behalf of the administration, I extend my deepest thanks to Commissioner Bharel for her service to the Commonwealth during these unprecedented times and to wish her the very best as she pursues her next professional chapter.”
Steve Walsh, president and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said in a statement that Bharel’s time at DPH “has made Massachusetts a healthier place to live.”
“Over the past six years, Commissioner Bharel’s advocacy on behalf of the commonwealth’s patients has been nothing short of extraordinary,” the statement said. “Even in the face of unparalleled challenges, she has made Massachusetts a healthier place to live. We wish her the best of luck in her next chapter, and we look forward to continued collaboration with DPH as we continue moving toward our new normal.”
Prior to becoming commissioner, Bharel practiced general internal medicine for more than 20 years, including at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Medical Center, according to her state bio. She has served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Boston University Medical School, and Harvard School of Public Health.