We write as a group of concerned ethicists, physicians and an attorney asking the Spokane County Board of Health to make public the “personnel issues” that lead to asking for Dr. Bob Lutz’s resignation and to allow for community input regarding your decision. Additionally, we have been contacted by a multitude of physicians who have expressed our same concerns. The timing of the BOH decision and the lack of a clear interim health officer during a moment of peak COVID-19 cases in Spokane County jeopardize the health and stability of the community.
The Revised Code of Washington 42.30 Open Public Meetings Act requires transparency in government. “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them” (RCW 42.30.010). Further, any vote taken that violates the statute “shall be null and void” (RCW 42.30.060). Without a formal vote recorded in the public record, it is unclear what led the BOH to take this drastic action, and whether this action is legal given the lack of transparency in the process of making this decision.
Because of our roles within the Spokane, Eastern Washington, and state response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen firsthand the Spokane Regional Health District’s handling of COVID-19. We stand by the compassionate leadership of Dr. Lutz and his colleagues at the SRHD. We celebrate the way his leadership has been informed by science and the principles of the ethical practice of public health, even in the midst of politically charged rhetoric about behavioral countermeasures necessary to combat the virus. The effectiveness of this leadership was recently recognized when Dr. Lutz and the SRHD received a Humanitarian Award which honored their visionary action and guidance amid the uncertainty of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
We have encountered Dr. Lutz in various ways over the last several years: as ethics leaders within local health care organizations, including the SRHD Ethics Committee, Spokane Disaster Clinical Advisory Committee, and the REDi Region Crisis Standards of Care Regional Triage Team (CSC-RTT). We have come to know him as a compassionate leader who strives to live up to the responsibility of the ethical practice of public health. He takes seriously individual liberties, the protection of public interest, and the right of all citizens to be heard. One of the primary purposes of the founding of the Ethics Committee at SRHD this past year was to ensure ethical scrutiny of SRHD policies and decisions.
In all respects, we have seen Dr. Lutz’s policies to have been: 1) nonpartisan in nature; 2) reached through a collaborative synthesis of quantitative and qualitative data; 3) inclusive of clear and well-defined parameters for phased reopening, and 4) communicated with transparency and concern for the complex array of human experience – not just biological, but also psychological, social, economic and emotional. We have seen him to be moderate, reasoned and nonextremist in his approaches, during a time where much of our country is marked by extreme political polarization. We fear that his removal is also a move away from centrist policies in a time where communities need more than ever to come together regardless of political persuasions.
Asking a county health officer who has shepherded our community safely through a global pandemic to resign without providing reasoning to the community is unacceptable, and the only way to know whether this decision was politically motivated is to be transparent about the reasoning that informed this decision.
The harm caused by forcing his resignation must be outweighed by the harm the BOH understands will be caused by his remaining in the position. Since the county health officer is the touchstone for the organization of the region’s COVID response, this decision will likely result in unnecessary suffering and deaths in our community. If Dr. Lutz agrees to have these “personnel issues” made public, we demand an account of BOH reasoning.
Whether or not the BOH discloses what has transpired, we remain grateful for Dr. Lutz’s steadfast leadership regarding the COVID-19 pandemic during these dangerous and troubling times.
Andi Chatburn, DO, MA, HEC-C; Maria Howard, Ph.D.; Pam Kohlmeier, MD, JD, FACEP; Kari Nixon, Ph.D., M.A.
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