One of Coastal Alabama’s most public faces during the COVID-19 pandemic is retiring after more than 31 years as the health officer of Mobile County.
Dr. Bernard Eichold, who has headed up an agency that consists of around 550 employees and operates on budget of $60 million, received several recognitions and a couple of plaques honoring his years of service during a press conference Thursday.
But he also received an unusual parting gift: His own action figure.
“I just got a wonderful group of people to work with,” said Eichold, laughing off a reaction to the packaged toy that looked more like the villainous Lex Luthor than a retiring health official. Eichold, 71, was the longest-serving health officer for Mobile County.
“We all respect each other and work hard and try to do the best we can for the citizens of Mobile,” Eichold said.
For Eichold and his staff, the hardest work occurred over the past two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eichold was front-and-center with issuing a health order in mid-March 2020, as the virus began to circulate through Alabama. At the time, Eichold ordered indoor dining and breweries close ahead of some of the more sweeping statewide orders that would take place in the weeks to come.
Mobile and Jefferson counties are the only two of Alabama’s 67 counties in which the health officer has authority to issue wide-ranging orders. The rest of the state’s counties take their directives from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.
“The last two years have been the greatest challenges in public health,” said Eichold, who urged people to continue following advice and guidance from their personal physicians.
“I’d like to encourage everyone, if you’ve had a health issue, please talk to your personal physician,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of chaos and confusion over the last few years. But that’s the person you trust basically with your life. In the future, going forward, if you have questions regarding health care, talk to your doctor.”
Eichold, whose retirement was effective on Friday, is being replaced by Dr. Kevin Michaels, a retired U.S. Army command surgeon who has been in private practice in the Mobile area since 2016.
“I have this great building, campus and a lot of people who are experts in their fields,” said Michaels, during a news conference that occurred in the courtyard of the Keeler Memorial building in downtown Mobile.
Michaels said that some of the critical issues that public health officials face in Alabama include the ongoing opioid crisis and a growing mental health concern.
He said the pandemic — with face mask requirements and stay-at-home orders — has “had an adverse effect on people.”
“There is a mental health issue we need to address in the community,” Michaels said.
Eichold said that he plans to remain involved with community activities and will continue to see patients at the Mobile County Health Department.
“I’ll have a clinical practice, but the day-to-day operation … there will be changes like with everything else,” Eichold said. “I look forward to spending more time with family and friends and enjoying my circles around the sun.”
But even in recent retirement, Eichold couldn’t help but to comment on the state of COVID-19, which has seen a decrease in community spread since the omicron variant’s peak in mid-January.
Eichold said that the next two weeks, following the city’s Mardi Gras celebration, could be instructional for the rest of the country.
“We’ll be the test tube for the rest of the nation right now with COVID-19,” he said. “With having Mardi Gras, in the next two to three weeks, if the COVID numbers stay down, which we hope they will, that will give us an idea on whether we’ve finally reached a significant immune status.”
Eichold added, “Will there be another COVID variant? Yes. When and how bad? We have no idea. It may be 100 years from now. We just hope this experience is over and that we can all go back to some form of life being safer and happier.”