Michael McNickle, who has directed Clatsop County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, has accepted a job in Washington state.

The Daily World in Aberdeen reported that McNickle will serve as director of Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services. He will start on March 15, according to the newspaper.

Michael McNickle

Michael McNickle has served as Clatsop County’s public health director.

McNickle could not be reached for comment.

County leaders said the news of McNickle’s departure came as a surprise.

“I just learned of Mike’s plans to relocate today,” County Manager Don Bohn said in a text message Wednesday night. “He has been in charge of county COVID response. The county will be evaluating options for interim leadership until a recruitment process can be completed.”

McNickle was hired as the county’s environmental health supervisor in 2014. He was named public health director in September 2016. He has been an advocate for a county needle exchange program to reduce the spread of disease among drug users, a tobacco retail license to help ensure tobacco products are not sold to people under 21 and a new household hazardous waste facility near the Astoria Transfer Station.

During the pandemic, McNickle emerged as the focal point of the county’s response to the virus. In June, he tested positive for COVID-19, describing it as “a teachable moment because it shows that anybody can get COVID.”

He has taken a less visible public role over the past few months. The county has recorded 768 virus cases since last March, with more than 500 since November.

McNickle is the second high-profile departure in the county’s Public Health Department.

Ellen Heinitz, a naturopathic doctor who served as the county’s community health project manager and was actively involved in pandemic response, resigned in January for a yearlong medical service trip to Guatemala.

Mark Kujala, the chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said Bohn has assumed more responsibility over the county’s response to the pandemic, along with other staffers in the Public Health Department.

“People will pull together and get the job done,” he said. “And, at the same time, we’ll be out looking to recruit a new public health director.”

Kujala said county leaders meet regularly on the pandemic.

“For any public health department across the country, this has been a year like no other,” he said. “And I think we’ve seen a lot of fatigue and stress within a lot of departments all across the country.

“It’s just such an unprecedented time that I’m not surprised that people feel like they need a change of scenery or need a break.”

The Daily World reported that McNickle was selected as the top candidate for the Grays Harbor County job among about a dozen applicants at a special county commission meeting Feb. 11. The newspaper reported he accepted the county’s offer on Tuesday.

Kujala, who said he was “shocked” when he first heard about McNickle’s departure, said he appreciates McNickle’s service to the county and wishes him the best in Grays Harbor County.

Nicole Bales is a reporter for The Astorian, covering police, courts and county government. Contact her at 971-704-1724 or nbales@dailyastorian.com.