Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously appointed Gwen Sims to serve as the interim executive director of Harris County Public Health in anticipation of Executive Director Umair Shah's departure Dec. 18. Sims, who currently serves as the deputy director of HCPH, will serve in the new role until a permanent executive director can be hired.

The appointment comes just weeks after Shah announced Nov. 17 that he would be leaving the department in mid-December to serve as the secretary of health for the state of Washington. Shah joined HCPH in 2004 as its deputy director and as the director for disease control and clinical prevention. He was appointed executive director by Harris County Commissioners Court in 2013.

"We know that COVID-19 is seeing a resurgent yet again in Harris County—it never really got to where it needed to be—but the numbers are very scary in the county and very scary in the state," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the Dec. 1 meeting. "We need to do everything we can to make sure that we have an aggressive and consistent operations of—not just the COVID-19 response—but everything else that the Public Health Department does, which is important work, particularly now."

To ensure consistency in the department's operations, Hidalgo said the court would draw on current HCPH staff to help fill Shah's role while an expedited national search for a permanent executive director is executed. Hidalgo added that a committee of the chiefs of staff of each member of the Commissioners Court will be tasked with launching the search and that Joshua Stuckey will serve as the chief transition officer.

"We [will] also take advantage of the fact that we have a number of health-specific executive search firms that we just happen to have in place so that we can recruit high-quality candidates quickly for a new public health director," Hidalgo said.

According to HCPH's website, Sims is a registered and licensed dietitian who joined HCPH in 1997. As Sims is not a doctor of medicine, Hidalgo added that Sims would be tasked with appointing a local health authority who is a doctor of medicine during her time as interim executive director.

Prior to her current role as deputy director, Sims served as the director of Nutrition and Chronic Disease Prevention for HCPH. Sims also serves as Champion for the Collaborate Activities, Recognition & Events Workgroup and has provided oversight and guidance for a number of other department organizations, including the Drug Abuse Prevention Taskforce; the Chronic Disease Tag-Up; the Injury Prevention Tag-Up; the Social, Emotional and Mental Well-Being Tag-Up; the Maternal & Child Wellness Taskforce; Obesity Reduction and Tobacco Cessation community projects; Health Education; and Healthy Living Matters.

Outside of HCPH, Sims serves as chair elect of Cancer Alliance of Texas, as vice president of L.I.F.E. Houston and as a board member for Houston Recovery Center Technical Assistance Group, among other roles.