Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Surgeon General resigns at Biden’s request

Ouster is regarded as a break with Trump administration’s coronavirus response, which the president has called a failure.

Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams at the White House last month. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams resigned at then-President-elect Joe Biden’s request early Wednesday, as Biden sought to make a symbolic break with his predecessor’s covid-19 response.

“Thank you for the opportunity to serve this great Nation, as this has been the honor of my life,” Adams wrote in a departure note posted to Facebook. “ … I hope in 2021 and beyond, we can focus more on what unites us, and rise above what divides us.”

The Post first reported that Biden was planning to ask for Adams’s resignation on Wednesday. Adams, who was nominated by President Trump, was sworn in as surgeon general on Sept. 5, 2017, to serve a four-year term set to expire this September.

The anesthesiologist and former Indiana health commissioner — a political independent who crafted a close relationship with then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — had emerged as a key spokesman for Trump’s coronavirus response, regularly appearing on national TV and using social media to advocate for public health measures such as social distancing. However, Adams’s visibility also made him a target last spring for Democrats, who accused him of defending Trump’s statements.

Reached by The Washington Post, Adams declined to comment.

Although dozens of Trump appointees across the health department resigned on Wednesday, the surgeon general role is thought to be in a different category because the job is viewed as being an advocate for the nation’s public health and often regarded as nonpartisan. Some surgeon generals have served across multiple administrations.

Biden has nominated Vivek H. Murthy, surgeon general under President Barack Obama and a close adviser, to be the nation’s new surgeon general, but Murthy first needs to undergo Senate confirmation hearings, which have yet to be scheduled. Three people with knowledge of the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it said the Biden administration would choose an acting surgeon general shortly, bypassing Deputy Surgeon General Erica Schwartz, a longtime public health official.

Schwartz, a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps who had served as the Department of Health and Human Services’s point person for the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, is planning to retire as a result of being passed over, the people said.

Schwartz did not respond to a request for comment.

Before Biden’s inauguration, Adams had offered to stay on to help his administration. But as of Wednesday evening, the Biden team had yet to reach out to him about a possible role, said one of the people with knowledge of Adams’ thinking. Murthy, meanwhile, has told colleagues he plans to turn to a slew of former surgeon generals for guidance.

A spokesperson for Biden referred to Murthy’s pending nomination as surgeon general.

Catch up on the most important developments in the pandemic with our coronavirus newsletter. All stories in it are free to access.

A top Trump administration official, meanwhile, confirmed that Schwartz is retiring.

“RADM Erica Schwartz, a career HHS official, served our country with honor and distinction for more than two decades,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, Trump’s HHS assistant secretary for health. “It is unfortunate that the American people will no longer have her expertise and dedication as we continue to battle the covid-19 pandemic and prepare the Commissioned Corps for 21st- century challenges.”

Often referred to as the “nation’s doctor,” the surgeon general has a bully pulpit to call attention to serious public health problems, but limited ability to make policy. He or she oversees the U.S. Public Health Service, more than 6,000 uniformed public health personnel who work in various parts of the federal government.

Some surgeon generals have served across multiple administrations, including David Satcher, who served out a four-year term that began under President Bill Clinton and ended under President George W. Bush.

However, Trump in April 2017 dismissed then-Surgeon General Murthy — an Obama appointee — in the third year of Murthy’s term, drawing the ire of Democrats.

“The Surgeon General must remain independent and free from political pressure,” seven Senate Democrats wrote to the White House in May 2017, after Murthy was abruptly pushed out.