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Interim county health officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez says data will lead response efforts

Dr. Francisco Velázquez has his “doctor hat” on now.

The former health care executive, professor and physician has returned to his clinical side as he enters his new role as the interim health officer at the Spokane Regional Health District.

Born in Madrid into a family of doctors, Velázquez was raised in Puerto Rico by his grandparents while his parents finished medical school in Europe. He went on to complete medical school in Puerto Rico as well, and took a residency position at University Hospital in Boston afterward.

He worked primarily as a pathologist in his early years and treated patients with numerous conditions and diseases that lacked treatments or even adequate testing back then, like HIV.

He views his interim role at the health district as returning to his role as a physician first.

“The moment I got the call, my doctor hat went on, and it’s not going to come off,” Velázquez said, “because that’s the skill and the experience and the knowledge that they are asking me to use.”

‘We need to look forward’

Velázquez’s most recent experiences in the health care world were managing and running operations at Quest Diagnostics Institute in California, then serving as the president of the Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories in Spokane, which brought him and his family to the Northwest in 2012.

Since 2017, Velázquez said he has spent the majority of his time and energy volunteering and serving on the numerous boards of diagnostic health care companies, as well as business and local arts and culture boards. He also works as a consultant when companies hire him to do so.

When the pandemic hit, Velázquez was asked to put together a testing task force for Life Science Washington and Greater Spokane Inc. He served on the board of nonprofits, like the United Way, where he helped prepare applications to apply for federal loans.

Velázquez knows former health officer Dr. Bob Lutz and said he has a lot of professional respect for the doctor. Velázquez said he collaborated with Lutz as early as April during the pandemic, on testing specifically, relying on his experience at both Quest and PAML. Velázquez also authored a guest opinion piece published in The Spokesman-Review with Lutz in July about wearing facial coverings.

When district Administrator Amelia Clark demanded that Lutz resign on Oct. 29, the district had no active health officer for a week, with Lutz locked out . Despite community outcry at Lutz’s ouster, the Board of Health had the final word Nov. 5, when it officially fired Lutz and installed Velázquez as interim health officer.

Since then, the Washington Board of Health has authorized an independent preliminary investigation into whether Clark broke the law, although no outcome of that investigation would lead to Lutz’s reinstatement at the district.

Velázquez enters the role of interim health officer at arguably the most challenging time the community has faced thus far in the pandemic. Hospitalizations in Spokane hit their highest daily peak Thursday, with 115 people receiving treatment in Spokane hospitals, including 75 Spokane County residents.

Cases are also accelerating, with 376 new COVID-19 cases confirmed on Wednesday and Thursday .

Some parts of the community are also divided by the political upheaval of Lutz’s firing.

Velázquez had messages for community members who are worried about the leadership transition at the district and those who see Lutz’s departure as an excuse to shirk public health recommendations.

“I really want the community to support the folks that are here (at the health district) doing the job,” he said. “We need to focus on that.”

He asked the community to do a better job at wearing face coverings, washing hands and distancing. He also praised the SRHD team, which has put in long hours for the majority of 2020.

“You, me, the senior citizens, the students, the babies, it doesn’t matter who it is, because this virus – different than many other viruses – really doesn’t have any selection criteria,” he said. “We are all at risk – all – no exceptions.”

He stopped short of saying he would impose more restrictions or suggest the county move backward in the phases, however. Local health officers have the authority to add more restrictions but cannot advance a county beyond its current phase without state Department of Health approval. Thus far, counties are frozen in their phases, and the governor announced on Thursday that more restrictions will be announced in the coming days.

“I do believe that where we are, we need to look forward. I think going backwards is always complicated, for a variety of reasons,” he said.

He pointed to meetings he has had in recent days with superintendents who are slowly bringing back younger grades for in-person learning, then pausing to look at outcomes before proceeding.

“We’re very carefully moving forward in a measured way and looking at the outcomes, with the understanding that if we see evidence that that is not the appropriate measure, then we’ll take a pause and analyze and we’ll realign the recommendations,” he said.

‘A doctor first’

Velázquez acknowledged his business and political ties in the community, from sitting on the Greater Spokane Inc. Board of Trustees to the phone call from Commissioner Al French that led to his appointment as the interim health officer.

He said French called him out of the blue last week to ask, hypothetically, if the health district needed help with some of the COVID activities, could he assist? Velázquez said it’s nearly impossible for him to say no to the phrase “Can you help?” and thus, he said he was happy to if he could.

“At that point I wasn’t sure exactly what I was agreeing to, but I agreed to help. It wasn’t until Friday that I could hear and had a better line of sight to what I was working with, which is fine,” he said.

Velázquez is the interim health officer until the Board of Health’s December meeting, when it could extend or end his tenure. Finding a permanent health officer, especially after Lutz’s ouster and in the midst of a pandemic, is expected to be difficult. Velázquez said he will help however long he is the right person for the job and is committed to his role as a physician during that time.

When asked if he would put public health over his ties to the business community, he said he has always been focused on “delivery of care, access to care, appropriateness of care, health care education and life sciences,” including when he serves on various boards.

“I’m a doctor first, and my focus is on what I just said (above),” he said.

He similarly said that his close relationships to politicians, including Mayor Nadine Woodward and the commissioners, would not get in the way of the data.

“Are we always going to agree? Probably not, because we’re all entitled to our opinions,” he said. “I would like to just say that everything I will bring to the table is the facts and data.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.