Hundreds of people gathered on the lawn of the Spokane Regional Health District on Sunday afternoon, challenging the decision to ask for Health Officer Bob Lutz’s resignation.
“I’m devastated, and I’m infuriated, and I want answers, and I want transparency,” said epidemiologist Anna Halloran. “I want Dr. Lutz back.”
Lutz has been the public face of the COVID-19 response in Spokane, working with health care providers, public officials and business owners, along with issuing public guidance during the pandemic.
Health district officials and board members issued confusing and contradictory announcements last week saying Lutz was asked to resign. Lutz released a statement Saturday saying he did not plan to resign and had retained legal counsel.
Former health district employee Chandra Richardson created a Facebook event titled “We Stand in Support of Dr. Lutz” in the hopes that 20 or 30 of her former colleagues would get together and publicly support Lutz.
Richardson said she was shocked when more than 1,000 people responded on Facebook, and a couple of hundred showed up in person.
She called Lutz “transparent and honest.”
“I just feel like what’s happening is not acceptable,” Richardson said.
Many of Richardson’s former colleagues agree.
Kira Lewis, a public health nurse, said it’s important to remember that Lutz’s potential dismissal would affect the whole community.
“This isn’t about any of us. This isn’t about Bob (Lutz), this isn’t about the board,” Lewis said. “This is about concern for our community and what happens now.”
On Friday, rumors began circulating among health district employees that Lutz had been fired.
“He is an extremely respected health officer. Throughout our state, he is widely known for his sound judgment and his compassion and his integrity, and using science to make decisions making all the hard decisions,” Lewis said. “He’s just an exemplary example of a health officer.”
After a tearful Friday morning came frustration, Halloran said.
In her 13 years at the health district, Halloran has never experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said Lutz has been the “support system” for the coronavirus response team at the health district.
Even after the news broke to employees, Halloran said Lutz called to check in on them, putting others first as he always does.
“It’s extremely disheartening to not have that same example set forth by others,” she said.
Halloran said she and her team haven’t heard from Amelia Clark, the district’s administrator who asked for Lutz’s resignation, since May.
Health district employees, including Halloran, publicly asked the Board of Health for more transparency on why Lutz is being forced out, to keep partisan politics out of health and science, to hold a public meeting in the near future and to keep Lutz on staff.
The way Lutz approaches informing the public has been an integral part to keeping COVID-19 at bay, Halloran said.
Now it’s the community and public health employees’ turn to show how much they appreciate that leadership, she said.
“We want to support public health, and make sure that the public knows that your public health servants are going to keep fighting for what’s right,” Halloran said.
Participants wore masks and attempted to maintain social distance at the demonstration Sunday afternoon. There were masks available and the megaphone was sanitized between each speaker. A sign-language interpreter stood at the front of a circle of people gathered around a makeshift picnic table stage.
More than 200 people at the protest joined more people online in signing a letter circulated by the Spectrum Center, asking for transparency from the board of health.
Julie and Duane Zink brought two unique public health supporters to the demonstration: Emlee the llama and a donkey named Donkey Donk.
Julie Zink, who worked in public health for 26 years, said she believes Lutz needs to continue as the county’s health officer.
“He just exemplifies a provider who is based on science and compassion,” she said. “I think there needs to be a look at the procedures of why the board is made up of mostly politicians and not health professionals.”
The Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health has 12 members, with representatives from the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley, a smaller town mayor, the three county commissioners and their three appointees.
Kevin Freeman, mayor of Millwood and the current smaller town representative on the health board, released a statement Sunday apologizing for the handling of the situation.
“I sincerely apologize for muddled communications, including a press conference that answered no questions regarding the request for Dr. Lutz’s resignation and subsequent announced termination,” he wrote. “It was the responsibility of the Board of Health to ensure clear communication to our community, and we as Board did not do this.”
Freeman served on the hiring committee that selected Lutz to be health officer and voted for his appointment, citing Lutz’s “competence, passion and dedication to public health” as qualifiers.
While many have criticized the attempted ouster of Lutz and bringing politics into public health, Freeman said he has seen “no indication” that’s the case. Freeman said he will continue to support science-based public health measures to control the pandemic.
Health officials plan to hold a public meeting in the near future where Clark will present her request to terminate Lutz.
Then Lutz will have the chance to respond, and the board will vote on the request.
Freeman said if Clark presents sufficient information during a public hearing to indicate Lutz’s continued employment as health officer would be detrimental to the health district, he would vote for his termination.
“No single employee, regardless of their position or stature in the community, can be allowed to continue in their job if their actions are detrimental to the organization and the employees of that organization,” he wrote.
Clark’s action has already prompted an outcry online. As of Sunday evening, an online petition calling for her removal had gathered more than 1,900 signatures. Only the board may remove the administrator.
David Green and Ted Cummings, Democratic candidates for Spokane County Commissioner seats, criticized the health board for its handling of the situation at Sunday’s event.
“This is a clinic on how not to handle staff matters,” Cummings said. “They couldn’t have handled it worse.”
The pair released a statement on their joint campaign website Sunday outlining how they would work to “minimize the ability of elected officials to manipulate decisions make by the board of health,” by working to include more health care professionals on the board.
Andrea Chatburn, regional director for ethics serving Providence in Washington and Montana, said she was not only concerned about Lutz’s potential firing but that state law was violated .
“Our COVID cases are spiking and we don’t have clear leadership. I’m concerned that politics are involved in the decision to let Bob (Lutz) go,” she said.
No matter who is the new health officer, Chatburn said they would be without the community relationships that Lutz has built over his years of public health service.
Monica Diteman, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said she is concerned the removal of Lutz is adding to the “collective trauma” the community is experiencing.
“People are fearful of politics right now and they’re like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ And then in addition, they’re fearful of the coronavirus,” she said. “And then if you add something in their own city like this, it’s just trauma after trauma after trauma.”
Even teenagers are concerned about what Lutz’s departure would mean for public health.
KellerRay Hutsell Zandell, 13, held a sign that read “Amelia is acting sus” at Sunday’s demonstration. The sign featured characters from the popular video game “Among Us” where an impostor is trying to hurt other players and they have to work together to protect the group.
Hutsell Zandell’s mother, AJ Sanders, works at the health district. Seeing her upset and stressed boosted the teenager’s concern.
“I think that it was very random, and it didn’t make any sense, and he was doing a very good job,” Hutsell Zandell said. “The way that it kind of happened without any information being put out there was very suspicious and shady.”
Sanders works on the health district’s youth tobacco, marijuana, and vaping device prevention program.
Since the news broke, she said her emotions have been all over the place.
“It’s disturbing, and I don’t really know where it’s coming from,” Sanders said. “So as far as trust in our administration, that’s really suspicious.”
The health officials’ public meeting to determine Lutz’s fate will be held virtually, in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines.
Public comments to the Health Board can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.