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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The health board hired a replacement, but the void left by Lutz’s ouster remains

A protester holds a sign in favor of former Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz during a protest against the Spokane Board of Health's ousting of Lutz, held on Nov. 1, 2020 outside the Spokane Regional Health District office.   (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A protester holds a sign in favor of former Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz during a protest against the Spokane Board of Health's ousting of Lutz, held on Nov. 1, 2020 outside the Spokane Regional Health District office.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Dr. Francisco Velázquez – the hastily drafted interim health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District – showed up the day before Thanksgiving at his third public press conference, 25 days into the worst month of the pandemic and 16 days into his thankless new job.

At his first such appearance, at the district’s weekly Facebook Live event for the public on Nov. 13 – as local case numbers were reaching new peaks – he introduced himself, discussing his career at length and give a lot of kudos to the hard-working district team.

He didn’t talk specific cases or strategy.

At his second, Nov. 18, Velazquez focused almost entirely on a single metric: the fact that cases among the very oldest county residents had fallen since July. Good news!

At his third press conference Wednesday, right after we reached a new daily case peak of 499, Velazquez made a few exceedingly brief, exceedingly general remarks. He did not give a statistical picture of the current state of the pandemic in Eastern Washington. He did not provide information about local hotspots, the state of contact tracing or testing, or anything more detailed about what officials are seeing on the ground.

He did not – apart from some quick “we-all-know-this-stuff” mentions – drive a powerful message about masks and social distancing.

He very much emphasized people should continue to seek health care for non-COVID reasons if they need to, and reminded people that the governor’s “rollback” on the pandemic precautions would be expected to have an effect in the near future. He introduced two hospital executives who talked about hospital capacity.

He said we all have a lot to be thankful for this season.

“We can still have holidays,” he said. “We just have to plan them a little differently.”

You probably know the ways he means, and that’s good because he barely mentioned them.

In all, it was a genial, general, only glancingly informative appearance, in which Velazquez resembled a master of ceremonies, introducing the main acts and thanking everyone for their hard work.

Sadly, that’s been characteristic of the communications reality that has descended since the leaders of the health district rashly, irresponsibly and ineptly drove out Dr. Bob Lutz, a widely admired public health expert, because he was expressing views they didn’t like.

The result – at a moment of crucial importance – has been an unnecessary loss of one of the most vital leadership tools in any public health crisis: A reliable, consistent, specific source of information and expertise.

The district has continued to compile and release statistical information about the pandemic, almost entirely by press release. Many others have engaged with the press and the public in efforts to get out the word about the pandemic and best practices for fighting it. But the face of the pandemic fight is gone.

That’s what administrator Amelia Clark and the reckless politicians on the health board so casually trashed. Lutz was not a figurehead or cheerleader. He was deeply knowledgeable and had served as the district’s public face for months and months, steering our understanding of what was happening. He was before the public continually, providing details, answering questions and giving unequivocal guidance on health precautions.

On those grounds, he has simply not been replaced.

This is not meant as a knock on the district itself, whose epidemiologists, public health nurses and others have been doing valiant work. Neither is it meant as a knock on Velázquez himself, who by all accounts is a nice guy with a wide range of medical experience as a doctor and health care executive – though not, perhaps, a lot of experience specific to this role.

No, this is a knock on the health board and Clark, who could not have fashioned an uglier, less competent, more nakedly obvious political excommunication of Lutz. That they did so in a rushed fashion, seemingly without even a basic understanding of the law governing the hiring and firing of health officers, when there was no emergency and with no replacement plan, made it even worse.

There was simply no health rationale for doing what they did. None. The excuses from the political hit squad – who objected that Lutz wrote an op-ed column about racism, had marched in a mask at a Black Lives Matter rally and had contacted legislators about gun safety, among a raft of other petty and controlling complaints – were ludicrous.

It was a travesty. It was also nearly a month ago now, and we’ve had that time to get an even stronger sense of what we’re missing. It has only strengthened the sense that change is needed in the way the health district is run.

That’s where Rep. Marcus Riccelli’s proposal for the upcoming legislative session comes in. Riccelli is drafting a bill that would change the nature of health district boards dramatically – requiring that they have at least as many health professionals as political appointees.

Our board now has nine elected officials and three citizens representatives. None of the politicians are medical professionals. One of the citizen reps is a dental hygienist. Another is Jason Kinley, a naturopath who has shared conspiracy nonsense about the pandemic at a Matt Shea rally.

And he voted to keep Lutz!

It is impossible to imagine that a board with more health expertise would have done what this board did. We’re living with the consequences of that now.

Maybe when the next crisis rolls around – when fluoride or vaccinations find their way back into the public eye, say – we won’t have to.

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