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Local health care providers stunned by sudden push to remove Spokane County Health Officer

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 30, 2020

Friday was a stunning day for the Spokane health care community.

Anna Halloran, one of the epidemiologists at the Spokane Regional Health District who investigates COVID-19 cases and notifies infected residents on a daily basis, said she was dismayed and angry with the attempt to force out Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz.

So she wrote an email to Board of Health members and to Amelia Clark, the district administrator who is engineering the efforts to oust Lutz.

“None of you have any idea of the demands and pressures we’ve been under. You have no idea what is asked of us on an hourly basis and the types of decisions we constantly have to make that greatly impact people’s lives. You have no idea what it feels like to be despised by the very public you’ve given your all to protect,” Halloran wrote. “You have no idea what this response has done to us personally and to our families because none of you have spoken with us. None of you have checked in to ask how your workforce at the heart of the response is coping.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations were the highest they’ve been in the Inland Northwest on Friday.

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 167 new cases, the fourth day in a row with more than 100 cases recorded in a day, a record.

Then, the community found itself potentially without a leader following an early morning announcement that Clark had asked the county’s health officer to resign. Lutz was given all of Friday to resign, but he didn’t. While he has not been formally terminated, per health board bylaws, the health district did not release any updates on his employment status with the district late Friday.

Halloran described Lutz as engaged in managing the crisis and available day and night. He checks in with her team on a daily basis. She asked the board to make any votes on Lutz’s position to be made in public.

“The risk that you’ve exposed not only our community to, but your public health workforce to as well, will ripple with irrevocable and serious consequences,” Halloran wrote.

She was not alone.

Local health care providers and executives statewide expressed concerns about the potential removal of the county health officer in the midst of an escalating pandemic.

“There appears to not have been any thoughtful or thorough backup plan to explain how the region moves forward during this crisis,” said Dr. Deb Wiser, chief medical officer at CHAS and past president of the Spokane Medical Society. “And I would add that someone stepping into that role at this point would be at a significant disadvantage to continuing the current good work that Dr. Lutz has already been doing.”

Wiser said Lutz was instrumental at the outset of the pandemic, bringing health care partners across the community together, including those who had not worked together. She said he had broad support for actions he’s taken throughout this year to keep the virus at bay, such as closing schools and only applying for Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening phases when data indicated it was safe.

“From the medical community standpoint, he has had overwhelming support of his actions in the COVID crisis,” Wiser said, including the support of the Spokane Medical Society board.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer credited Lutz for his collaboration with the department during the pandemic, both in planning a response to potential community clusters of the disease and in how the fire department responds when employees contract COVID-19 themselves.

The fire department, which provides emergency medical services in Spokane, was unaware Lutz would be asked to resign.

“All of our advice through this entire pandemic has been from Dr. Lutz,” Schaeffer said. “The leadership and involvement from the health officer has been greatly appreciated and needed to ensure not only the public’s safety, but also the safety of our employees.”

Lutz and the SRHD team were awarded the Providence Sister Peter Claver Humanitarian Award earlier this week, which Peg Currie, chief operating officer at Providence Health Care, said is determined through community nominations.

“The reason they floated to the top was they do believe in science as (Claver) did; they did the hard things as she did; they’ve taken the heat as she did; and I don’t believe they were intimidated to do the right thing,” Currie said.

Currie said the news of Lutz’s potential departure seemed unusual, but she encouraged the community to not be fearful, noting the strong health care partners and resources in Spokane. The state department of health stands ready to support the Spokane Regional Health District, if necessary.

“The Washington State Department of Health would like to thank Dr. Bob Lutz for his service to Spokane County as a local public health leader,” a statement from the agency said. “We remain ready to offer support to the county health district as needed until a new Local Health Officer is named.”

The Washington State Medical Association, which represents state physicians, released a statement saying it was troubled by the report of an attempt to force Lutz out of the health district.

“Dr. Lutz’s departure during a time of a public health state emergency is extremely concerning and has become an unfortunate pattern in numerous states, where county public health officers are being asked to resign due to a difference of political opinion rather than following evidence based medicine and science,” as statement from the association says.

In the meantime, virus activity is escalating in Spokane County. Currie asked that community members do their part in masking and social distancing.

“We are staffing for full every day because we don’t know what’s going to be happening, but we’re trying to be cautious,” she said.

There were 63 COVID-19 patients Friday in Spokane hospitals, including 47 Spokane County residents. Across the state line, Kootenai Health is treating 43 patients with the virus.

Health district staff have had their hands full this week with 563 new confirmed cases since Monday. Former long-time employee at the health district, Dorothy MacEachern, who came back on a contract during the pandemic from the state health department, said she is concerned for how daunting the news of Lutz’s potential departure could be for health district staff.

MacEachern was back at the health district for six months in and out helping with their response to the virus in long-term care facilities. She said Lutz was cheerful and supportive of his staff, especially the epidemiologists who have been inundated with cases since this summer.

“He really respects his experts, and he’s really clear about that,” MacEachern said.

She said there could be a fair concern that some employees might consider leaving the district due to the potential ousting of their leader. While she is now retired, MacEachern said she was “dumbfounded” at the timing of the decision to call for Lutz’s resignation.

“Not only do we not have a health officer, we don’t have any medical expertise of that magnitude present,” she said. “And getting an interim health officer may be super challenging in the time of a pandemic – and when the last health officer was fired for a reason that no one will talk about except for ‘personnel issues.’ ”

Local ethicists canceled plans and immediately penned a letter on Friday when they learned that Lutz was being asked to leave, calling on the health district to make the “personnel issues” that led to Lutz’s firing public.

Maria Howard, a philosophy professor at Gonzaga University who sits on three health ethics or preparedness committees, some directly involved in the pandemic response, said she wasn’t too surprised to learn the news of Lutz being asked to leave.

Lutz has clashed with some Spokane Health Board members, particularly the Spokane County Commissioners on the board who have repeatedly pushed for him to open up local businesses. The commissioners asked Lutz to ask for the state’s permission to move Spokane County into Phase 3 earlier this summer, but he never did.

“The thing I’m most concerned about is the lack of communication from the Board of Health and the lack of a desire to get community input before taking such a drastic step in the middle of a global pandemic before removing our county health officer,” Howard said.

She said there is an overwhelming amount of support for Lutz and the work he has done throughout the pandemic on the committees she’s served on, as well as at Gonzaga.

“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 letter from Howard and a handful of local ethicists says.

Ultimately, they conclude that forcing Lutz to resign will be detrimental to the community’s pandemic response.

“This is dangerous; people will die because of this,” Howard said.

Staff writer Adam Shanks contributed to this story.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.

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