Another top doctor resigns in Anchorage as new health director faces tough questions

David Morgan at an Assembly work session on Aug. 3, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Another top doctor who has been working to manage public health efforts in Anchorage has resigned.

Bruce Chandler, the Anchorage Health Department’s longtime medical officer who specialized in infectious disease control and prevention, turned in a letter of resignation on Sunday. His resignation is effective on Aug. 15, and he is on scheduled leave until then, according to a health department spokesperson.

Chandler did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday evening, but acting Health Director David Morgan told Assembly members in a meeting that Chandler had retired.

It is the latest episode of tumult for the health department in Alaska’s biggest city, where a spike in coronavirus cases, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, has caused all the state’s major hospitals to raise alarms.

Dave Bronson, the city’s new mayor, has expressed skepticism about both masking and COVID-19 vaccines. He has said he will not take measures like capacity limits to mitigate spread, a major shift away from how the city has approached the virus. Bronson has called vaccines “experimental” and said he hasn’t gotten vaccinated. At a news conference last week, members of his administration downplayed hospital concerns.

Also last week, Anchorage’s epidemiologist, Janet Johnston, left the health department, saying that she didn’t think she could accomplish her goals under the new administration. Alaska’s News Source reported that Johnston was asked to resign effective immediately or be fired.

Bronson appointed Morgan to run the city’s health department, but his appointment must be approved by the Assembly. During a Tuesday work session, he faced pointed questions from members over comments he made on social media that appeared to downplay the pandemic, his beliefs about the science behind common COVID-19 mitigations and about his lack of experience in public health.

“My inbox has been overwhelmed with emails of folks emailing me concerned about this appointment,” said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia. “And those have included people that you’ve worked with in the past, and it appears that there is a number of examples in your past where you’ve left organizations worse off than you found them.”

Perez-Verdia was referring in part to allegations, reported in the Anchorage Press, that Morgan made missteps handling the finances of Choices, Inc., a behavioral health nonprofit.

Morgan dodged direct questions about whether masks are an effective tool to reduce the spread of COVID-19, saying that he wears an N95 mask “when needed” and saying that he follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on masking.

Neither Morgan nor any of the six Assembly members wore masks at the work session. The CDC now recommends masking up in public, even for vaccinated people, in indoor spaces in places with high levels of transmission. Anchorage is one of those places.

Morgan also made a number of verbal slips during the hearing, calling the coronavirus “Corvid,” referring to former Anchorage epidemiologist Janet Johnston as “Jane” and misstating Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink’s last name as “Zinkle.”

Morgan defended his qualifications for the job, pointing to his years of experience working for health care organizations.

“All I can say is: 40 years of experience working in every health care institution imaginable, letters of endorsements from executive directors to physicians, and governors and mayors,” he said.

Another issue was Morgan’s pick for Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Michael Savitt, a pediatrician who spent most of his career practicing in New Mexico. Assembly members had questions about social media posts and other online comments both Morgan and Savitt had made, denying the efficacy of masks and suggesting COVID-19 is a hoax.

Members expressed concern about Savitt’s experience. Morgan described Savitt as having “a lot of infectious disease experience.” Savitt’s resume shows he worked as a pediatrician in several states and worked as a health care administrator but does not have specific training in infectious disease or experience in public health.

Savitt has been a frequent critic of the Assembly. An account under Savitt’s name posted comments on a conservative blog accusing the members of “acting like petty tyrants” and saying the public should tell the assembly to “go to hell.”

In response, Morgan said Savitt would be in his position until the city can find someone who has expertise in epidemiology.

“It doesn’t give great confidence to know that we replaced someone credible with someone who has kind of a colored past with the Assembly. And beyond that has questionable experience relative to what you suggested,” Assembly member Chris Constant said at the hearing.

Morgan faces a confirmation vote at the regular Assembly meeting next Tuesday. He needs six votes to be approved.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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