U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has been removed by the Trump administration and replaced temporarily by his deputy, Rear Adm. Sylvia Trent-Adams.
Murthy, a holdover from the Obama administration, was asked to resign, according to a statement released Friday night by the Department of Health and Human Services. The statement said that “after assisting in a smooth transition into the new Trump administration,” Murthy “has been relieved of his duties.” Trent-Adams, a 24-year veteran of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a former chief nurse officer of the Public Health Service, will fill the role for now, the statement said.
In a post on Facebook, Murthy wrote that “for the grandson of a poor farmer from India to be asked by the President to look out for the health of an entire nation was a humbling and uniquely American story. I will always be grateful to our country for welcoming my immigrant family nearly 40 years ago and giving me this opportunity to serve.” His dismissal came on the eve of the March for Science, which drew thousands of demonstrators to the National Mall.
A physician, Murthy, 39, is a longtime believer that gun violence is a public-health issue, a view that stalled his nomination in the Senate for more than a year and probably did not align him well with the current administration. He took office in December 2014, and in an interview with The Washington Post four months later, he did not back off those views.
“The statements I've made in the past about gun violence being a public health issue, I stand by those comments because they're a fact,” he said then. “They're a fact that nearly every medical professional who's ever cared for a patient can attest to.”
His biggest accomplishment may have been the publication in November of a landmark report on drug and alcohol addiction, which placed that condition alongside smoking, AIDS and other public health crises of the past 50 years that previous surgeons general have tried to address. The report called the addiction epidemic “a moral test for America.” Murthy's office sent millions of letters to doctors asking for their help to combat the opioid crisis.
In 2015, amid a serious measles outbreak, Murthy urged parents to have their children vaccinated, adding his voice to the chorus trying to counter the small but burgeoning anti-vaccination movement. “The most important message I have is to please, please, please get your child vaccinated,” he said at the time. Later that year, he called for a walking campaign to combat chronic disease and obesity.
Sometimes known as the “nation's doctor,” the surgeon general has little power beyond the ability to call attention to serious public health problems and offer data and solutions. He or she oversees the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, more than 6,600 uniformed public health-care personnel who work in various parts of the federal government. Some worked on the recent Zika and Ebola crises.
Murthy had nearly two years left on his four-year term as surgeon general. The news release said he was asked to resign, then relieved of his duties. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) criticized the dismissal in a news release, saying that Murthy “U.S. surgeons general are not supposed to be fired midterm. They have served administrations of both political parties because keeping Americans safe and healthy isn't a partisan issue. Dr. Murthy helped steer our country through the frightening Ebola and Zika outbreaks, and rightfully focused on the devastation of addiction.”
James T. Currie, executive director of the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service, a non profit that represents officers in the USPHS, said his group plans to campaign to persuade Trump to nominate a permanent surgeon general from within the ranks of the Public Health Service, which, he said, is required by federal law.
According to her biography on the Surgeon General's website, Trent-Adams was the chief nurse officer for the USPHS from 2013 to 2016, advising on the “recruitment, assignment, deployment, retention, and career development” of nurses in the corps. She also held a senior position in the HIV/AIDS Bureau at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). She is not the first nurse to serve as surgeon general; Richard Carmona, who held the post from 2002 to 2006 under President George W. Bush was both a nurse and doctor.
Murthy wrote in his Facebook post that “the world is locked in a struggle between love and fear. Choose love. Always. It is the world's oldest medicine. It is what we need to build a nation that is safe and strong for us and our children.
“Healing happens when we are able to truly talk to and connect with each other,” he added. “That means listening and understanding. It means assuming good, not the worst. It means pausing before we judge. Building a more connected America will require us to find new ways to talk to each other.”
Lena Sun contributed to this report.