Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy says the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, still has his confidence even as she’s become the focus of escalating attacks by the anti-vaccine movement and other critics of the governor’s pandemic response.
Wasilla GOP Rep. Christopher Kurka, who’s running for governor as a conservative alternative to Dunleavy, this week launched a “Fire Anne Zink” petition, saying he’s committed to removing her “on Day 1 of my administration.”
At a Dunleavy constituent event Saturday in the deeply conservative Mat-Su, audience members applauded calls for Zink’s removal.
The governor, at the event, appeared to suggest that Zink’s position in his administration was uncertain, telling a participant who asked about Zink that he will “make a decision” about several members of his administration — not just one.
In a phone interview Wednesday, after some of Dunleavy’s critics attacked the governor for not defending Zink more aggressively, Dunleavy said she has “served Alaskans well” and that he “should have been clear.”
“There is no reason for me to fire Dr. Zink. Dr. Zink has my confidence,” Dunleavy said.
“Is Dr. Zink guilty of dispensing advice? Yeah, that’s her job,” he added. “I don’t think she should be held accountable for folks not liking information. I think the whole thing’s been politicized.”
For her part, Zink, in a phone interview, said “it’s been a hard week.”
“This hasn’t been new, but it’s escalated,” she said.
The attacks on her include physical threats, Zink said, which have also increased recently. But she also added that she continues to have a good working relationship with Dunleavy, even if they don’t always agree.
“I can’t ever speak to someone’s intentions as to why they do or don’t respond in a situation — particularly a live situation, in the moment. All I can speak to is my interactions and my relationship,” she said. “We continue to have regular conversations — we’ve never seen eye to eye on lots of things, and that’s what I think has made us both stronger. And I appreciate the way we continue to work through those challenges together and collaboratively.”
The attacks on Zink come amid a hostile climate nationwide for public health officials.
Hundreds of top medical officers like Zink have left the field in the past two years, as the pandemic has increasingly polarized their work and made them targets for conservative-leaning elected officials and activists. Just 17 of the 50 state medical officers in place at the start of the pandemic are still in their jobs, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Zink, a Mat-Su emergency room doctor, was hired just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, she’s drawn a loyal following of Alaskans with her plain-spoken advice and lively social media presence.
Public opinion surveys suggest that more than half of Alaskans — 57% of respondents early last year — think she’s handled the pandemic well, while only about 10% think she hasn’t. Just 6% of people called Zink’s performance “pretty bad” in an August survey, which showed that even the majority of conservatives approve of her work.
Zink’s critics are “a very small group of people,” said Jennifer Meyer, assistant professor of public health at University of Alaska Anchorage.
“And the vast majority of us are very grateful for her service throughout this pandemic,” she said. “There are more of us that are with her than against her.”
Dunleavy himself nominated Zink for a national award in November, saying she’s “worked tirelessly” during the pandemic and that her work has “saved thousands of Alaskans.”
Even as a minority, though, Zink’s critics are vocal and represent a slice of Dunleavy’s base in the Mat-Su, where he lives. In an election year, they’ve been putting increasing pressure on the governor to remove her.
At the weekend constituent event, organized by conservative activist Mike Coons, the audience broke into applause at least twice when participants said Zink should be fired, with no direct response from Dunleavy.
He also did not respond directly when an audience member appeared to specifically ask him about Zink, instead suggesting that he was considering the removal of multiple members of his public health team.
“I’ll make that decision. I’m not going to have a discussion — I’m being honest with you — I’m not going to have a discussion here in front of folks. But I’ll make a decision on future, not just one staff member, but a number of staff members,” he said.
In the phone interview Wednesday, Dunleavy dismissed the idea that he was trying to placate his audience and said he was trying to avoid discussing personnel issues at a public forum.
“Personnel files, personnel everything should be protected and not just willy-nilly discussed,” he said. “But here we are. And I get it — I understand that this is the issue of the day.”
Kurka’s petition, meanwhile, says Zink endorses a “one size fits all” approach to “universal application of experimental COVID-19 shots for nearly all Alaskans,” and “refuses to listen to or act on any medical position contradicting her recommendations.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that vaccines are the best protection against COVID-19, that they’re safe and that their benefits outweigh their risks. The coronavirus vaccines approved for use in the U.S. also are not experimental; while they’re approved on an emergency basis, they went through standard safety reviews and did not skip stages.
Kurka’s petition also says Zink “does not support or respect the rights of Alaskans to maintain medical privacy, secure informed consent before receiving experimental treatment or to try alternative prevention and therapeutic interventions.”
“This statement is self-evident in Dr. Zink’s actions, omissions, statements and attitudes towards legislators, medical professionals and anyone else who challenges the deep-state, CDC, National Institutes of Health and big-pharma agenda to which she ascribes loyalty,” Jason Floyd, a spokesman for Kurka, said in an email.
Zink, in the interview, said Alaska law gives her “almost zero power or authority over anything,” whether that’s hospital practices or doctors’ prescribing authorities.
“We are incredibly and have been incredibly supportive, from Day 1, of patients and their providers having that relationship together,” she said. “No government should get in the way of that and stand in the space of that. We are just here to provide information and resources.”
She added: “I am a public servant who took this job because I care passionately about the patients that I saw, and saw systems failing them — and felt like we could do better for my friends, for my neighbors and for fellow Alaskans.”
Zink said she’s especially frustrated when people attack her based on their assumptions about what she and Alaska health officials do, rather than what they actually do. And she invited residents to contact and question her, through the health department’s public science forums each Wednesday.
Asked about her enthusiasm for continuing in her job, Zink acknowledged that “the threats of physical violence are hard.” But she also suggested that the pressure on her has made her “more committed.”
“My name is out there,” she said. “I don’t want the amazing health care workers and public health team that is working day and night in the background to be impacted by the frustration and the hate that’s out there. In some ways, it’s my job to protect them from that.”
Meyer, the public health professor, said the attacks on Zink align with one of the key strategies of the anti-vaccine movement, which is to undermine science, scientific evidence and scientific institutions.
“And so you’ll see them attack anyone who’s using science to inform public health recommendations or public health policy,” Meyer said. Zink, she added, is “simply stating the recommendations that the CDC is putting forward, so she has recommended masking, she’s recommended vaccines, she’s consistently recommending things that scientific consensus supports.”
Meyer also noted that while some people may be frustrated that Dunleavy has not imposed statewide mandates to address the recent omicron-driven coronavirus surge, he’s also resisted significant pressure from conservatives to undercut public health strategies.
That’s even as other GOP elected officials have pushed legislation to ban policies like vaccine requirements and mask mandates.
“He’s not falling into that trap,” Meyer said.