A top Boston health official has been working remotely from Hawaii. Two city councilors want her back.

“It’s difficult to imagine how you can fully immerse yourself in this work when you’re not here."

Boston, MA - 3/8/20 -  (L-R) Arun Rath, Host of WGBH's All Things Considered listens as Nahid Bhadelia, BU National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories answers a question as Jennifer Lo, Boston Public Health Commission and Larry Madoff, Massachusetts Department of Public Health listened during a panel at a community-wide town-hall forum held to discuss the latest news on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) at the Museum of Science, Boston's Gordon Current Science & Technology Center, and held in collaboration with WGBH.  (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Jennifer Lo (center), the medical director for the Boston Public Health Commission, during a forum on March 8, 2020, held to discuss COVID-19, at the Museum of Science in Boston. –Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe

As the Boston Public Health Commission has worked to navigate the city through the second COVID-19 surge and the rollout of vaccines over the past several months, the agency’s medical director, Dr. Jennifer Lo, has been working remotely 5,000 miles away in Hawaii.

Now, two Boston city councilors are calling on Lo to return.

Annisaa Essaibi George and Frank Baker, two members of the council’s Public Health Committee, told the Boston Herald that Lo should come back to Boston.

“We need her back here as soon as possible,” Essaibi George, who is also running for mayor, told the Herald. “We are at the most critical point in this pandemic. COVID is still here, even though the vaccine is here … We need to make sure the public’s health is front and center of our work.”

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Lo, who is a member of the senior BPHC leadership team, has been working from Hawaii since November. As NBC10 Boston first reported last month, Lo said she and her husband made the “difficult decision” to temporarily move to the state “for personal reasons, including to support both sets of our aging parents.”

In fact, Lo said she offered to resign and return to the private sector.

“However, BPHC determined I would be able to effectively continue my work remotely while maintaining the same level of responsibilities required in this role,” she told NBC10 Boston.

As medical director, Lo’s job includes working with BHPC staff and local health care organizations, as well as advising the commission on medical policy issues. She was appointed to the position in 2018.

According to NBC10 Boston, both Rita Nieves, the interim executive of BHPC, and Manny Lopes, the chair of the commission’s governing board, vouched for Lo’s ability to perform her job, despite being thousands of miles and several time zones away, considering how remote work has been the norm for many residents over the past year. Nieves also told the station that Lo is still expected to be available during the same 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern Time schedule on the four days she works.

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Critics, including Essaibi George, say BHPC should have looked at hiring an interim medical director. According to the Herald, two-thirds of BPHC staff are working in the city.

“It’s difficult to imagine how you can fully immerse yourself in this work when you’re not here,” Essaibi George told the Herald.

However, Nieves told NBC10 Boston last month that it isn’t an easy job to fill; prior to Lo’s hiring, it took roughly a year to find a qualified candidate. Allowing Lo to work from Hawaii was the best of the available options, she said.

“I had to choose between that and not having a medical director,” Nieves told the news station. “And at this point in the pandemic response, to me, that was unacceptable.”

According to the Herald, Lo plans to return to Boston in August.

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