Another top doc resigns in Anchorage, 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 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.

RELATED: Anchorage Mayor Bronson says he won’t push masks or vaccines, hires new top doc

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 such as capacity limits to mitigate spread, a major shift from how the city had approached the virus. Bronson has called vaccines “experimental” and said he has not been vaccinated. At a news conference last week, members of his administration downplayed hospital concerns.

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

Bronson appointed Morgan to run the city’s health department, but his appointment still 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 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.”

RELATED: COVID-19 patients at Alaska’s hospitals are mostly younger, sicker and unvaccinated

Perez-Verdia was referring, in part, to a former colleague’s Twitter posts, alleging Morgan made missteps while handling the finances of behavioral health nonprofit CHOICES, Inc. — as reported in the Anchorage Press.

CHOICES did not comment on those allegations to Alaska Public Media.

Morgan said the allegations were unfounded, and that he’d never received any written feedback about poor performance from leadership at CHOICES.

Morgan dodged direct questions about whether masks are an effective tool to reduce the spread of COVID-19, saying he wears an N95 mask “when needed” and 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 at the hearing 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 also expressed concern about Savitt’s experience. Morgan described Savitt as having “a lot of infectious disease experience.” But although Savitt’s resume shows Savitt worked as a pediatrician in several states and worked as a health care administrator, it makes no reference to 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 Assembly members of “acting like petty tyrants,” and saying the public should tell the Assembly to “go to hell.”

“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,” Assembly member Chris Constant said at the hearing. “And beyond that, has questionable experience relative to what you suggested.”

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

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

This story has been updated.

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