Anchorage’s director of public health resigns as city faces worst COVID-19 outbreak in pandemic
The director of the Anchorage public health division has resigned, leaving the post temporarily empty as a continuing wave of COVID-19 is triggering infections at an all-time high and straining the city’s understaffed hospitals.
Christy Lawton resigned Monday from the post she had held since February 2019, according to a spokesperson for the Anchorage Department of Health. City officials declined to provide further details, citing privacy concerns.
Prior to coming to the town, Lawton served as director of the state office of children’s services from 2010 to 2018.
On Tuesday, she declined to be interviewed but made a statement.
“I am proud of the work that myself and the AHD team have accomplished and I have a deep admiration for all the public health professionals in our community who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic”, Lawton wrote. “I strongly encourage the people of our city to put politics aside and focus on what it takes to really get back to ‘normal’. This means more of us are getting vaccinated and pursuing diligent mitigation measures in the meantime. We are not safe until the majority of us are protected.
She becomes the fourth municipal public health official to leave the department since July, when Mayor Dave Bronson was sworn in.
Alaska is in the midst of an unprecedented COVID-19 wave driven by the highly infectious delta variant, which has placed the state at the top of the nation for recent new cases and recently reported deaths even though it remains lower than the national average for immunization rates.
In Anchorage, the number of one-day COVID-19 cases fell from just 19 on July 1 to 485 earlier this week. The state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, adopted crisis care standards earlier this month after staff shortages and high numbers of COVID-positive patients made provision impossible treatment for everyone.
Unlike previous administrations that adopted pandemic mask requirements and capacity limits, Bronson vowed not to adopt COVID-19 restrictions and called the vaccines “experimental” early in his tenure.
[As Alaska hospitals report severe strain, Anchorage Mayor Bronson blasts their vaccine requirements]
Former municipal epidemiologist Janet Johnston resigned at the end of July. David Morgan, appointed by Bronson to head the health department, resigned in August days before a confirmation vote.
Morgan came under scrutiny from members of the Anchorage Assembly over his qualifications and comments which were seen as downplaying the severity of the pandemic. At the time, Bronson blamed Morgan’s departure on “a political campaign against him.”
Former Chief Medical Officer Dr Bruce Chandler tendered his resignation around the same time, starting in mid-August.
Joe Gerace, a former firefighter, paramedic and Red Cross disaster responder, was appointed the new director of the health department by Bronson on September 17.
When asked on Tuesday if he could provide information on what had happened with Lawton, Gerace replied, “Negative. We are not talking about employment issues.
Health Department spokeswoman Chelsea Ward-Waller said the city was planning to fill her post.
“We will immediately begin the search for a qualified public health division manager,” Ward-Waller said.
Johnston said on Tuesday that she did not want to talk about the reasons for Lawton’s resignation or rehash the details surrounding her own departure this summer.
“I think this is part of the same trend that we are seeing,” she said. “I’m just horrified at the lack of response to the situation we find ourselves in right now.”
The Anchorage Assembly is considering an ordinance that would require all residents, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status, to wear masks indoors in public spaces and outdoors during crowded public events in order limit the spread of the coronavirus. The Assembly was to collect testimony and possibly vote on the ordinance on Tuesday evening.
Bronson published an opinion piece in the Daily News on Tuesday reaffirming his opposition to any mask warrant and touting his administration’s role in increasing “monoclonal antibody tests, vaccinations and treatments in consultation with his personal medical provider.” .
Johnston, when asked about the importance of three seasoned public health professionals leaving positions in the department, called the situation “recognition that no matter what our experience, no one is listening to what we have to say.”
“I think in this situation you have a choice to make. It’s hard to know which is the right choice, ”she said. “Are you staying so that you can continue to defend your rights or are you leaving because the decisions that are made are decisions that you cannot support?” “