Resignations pile up at health department as Anchorage confronts pandemic and homelessness

The Anchorage Health Department on Nov. 8, 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Nine top level officials including division heads, medical officers, and spokespeople working at the Anchorage Health Department have all left or been fired since Mayor Dave Bronson took office in July.

That’s left some questioning whether the department can effectively respond to the twin crises of the pandemic and homelessness that continue to plague the city.

“When that many people leave with that much experience, it really, really affects the department’s ability to run effectively,” said West Anchorage Assembly Member Kameron Perez-Verdia. “And that worries me in terms of the services for the city.”

So far, the department has continued to offer programs like COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, though it plans to turn over vaccinations to contractors in 2022. In October, it took on responsibility for the city’s new, sprawling homeless shelter network that was created during the pandemic.

But the department has stumbled in recent weeks. Assembly members have criticized it for switching COVID-19 testing locations with minimal public notice, for delays in setting up a warming tent outside the Sullivan Arena shelter and for not communicating about staff departures. It also announced that it is ending a community advisory board that had been working on increasing equitable health care access for underserved groups. Leadership for homeless services has been plagued with turnover.

The health department did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. In recent weeks, the department has mostly stopped communication with the media.

Health Director Joe Gerace, reached by phone on Monday, said he is not allowed to speak without approval from a public information officer.

The public information officer for the health department, Robert McNeily, has not responded to dozens of phone calls and emails about various topics over the last several weeks related to this story and others.

The turnover at the department comes as Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has continued his opposition to commonly accepted public health measures like masking and vaccination. The mayor, who is not vaccinated, presided over rancorous assembly meetings in October, in which testifiers denigrated doctors and local hospitals. He also spoke at a gathering of national vaccine skeptics and local doctors who have been prescribing ivermectin to treat coronavirus, despite warnings that the drug isn’t effective.

The problem of longtime employees leaving local health departments isn’t unique to Anchorage. Across the country, the New York Times has tracked more than 500 top local health officials who have left their jobs as of October. A review by the Times notes that in all 50 states, “local public health across the country is less equipped to confront a pandemic now than it was at the beginning of 2020.”

Deputy Health Director DeeAnn Fetko, a 25-year veteran of the department, is the latest to leave. People who worked with her said she was integral in managing a complicated stream of state and federal grants coming into the department. Three medical experts who combined for decades of expertise have also left or been fired. Their replacements haven’t been announced.

“The department is very lean to begin with, and losing this institutional knowledge will have impacts,” said Natasha Pineda, the health director under Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. “DeeAnn (Fetko) was for me a central figure in my ability to run the department.”

Alaska Public Media has confirmed the resignations of over half dozen other midlevel officials and contractors working on things like logistics, vaccinations, public communication and finances.

With one exception, former employees have not given specific reasons for their departures.

Some worry about what the loss means for the department as it continues its routine functions like restaurant inspections, childcare permitting, and sexually-transmitting disease screening and treatment.

The loss is compounded by sudden announcements of exits before replacements are found. Many of the positions still haven’t been filled. Health Director Joe Gerace recently told an Assembly committee that it was in the final stages of hiring an epidemiologist to replace Janet Johnston, who resigned over four months ago, but he hasn’t announced a name.

Some in the Assembly are worried about the process for hiring new officials. Replacements for division managers are being selected by the mayor and city manager, according to Gerace.

“We don’t actually control that,” Gerace told an Assembly committee recently.

That’s a change from the previous administrations, where the health director selected executive positions and gave them to the mayor for approval, leading to some concerns that officials could be chosen for political reasons.

“There’s no longer any competition,” said Downtown Assembly Member Chris Constant, “It’s all cronyism.”

The new administration has also departed from the previous one in how it finds new candidates. Assembly members say they were not aware of any open solicitation for the division manager or public information officer jobs. It’s not required by city code, but previous administrations regularly posted jobs publicly to find candidates outside of their administrations.

“The process they’re going through is not your standard procedure,” said Perez-Verdia. “It does feel like that a number of folks that are being put in positions are not going through a typical process.”

Even if the administration finds qualified staff, some worry it won’t be enough to make up for the loss of decades of experience.

“If you consider the resignations, we lost Ms. Fetko … Ms. Lawton and Ms. Lebo — that’s the senior leadership of the health department,” said Midtown Assembly Member Meg Zaletel. “And we haven’t had an opportunity where new hires have come on, really, to a significant extent to have been able to cross train with someone like the deputy director.”

Anchorage’s 2022 budget dropped back to pre-pandemic levels, but Gerace told the Assembly recently that several positions will be filled with grant funding. The city funded 64 full time positions in the health department in 2021.

Anchorage does face some long-term problems that predate the Bronson administration. Wages for public health nurses are below what other organizations pay, according to testimony from Gerace at a recent Assembly committee. He said there’s about a half dozen unfilled public health nursing positions, a third of the nursing staff.

“We’ve had a very difficult time – I’m going to be truthful – recruiting them, because there’s so much demand for nurses right now,” he said.

At the same time, Assembly members say they aren’t getting information through normal channels. Instead of press releases or news conferences, they’re hearing about changes at committee meetings or from reading news articles.

“We found out about the resignation of the homeless coordinator at a homeless work session where he didn’t show up,” said Perez-Verdia. “So there’s certainly some chaos going on behind the scenes.”

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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