Anchorage

Anchorage municipal epidemiologist resigns

The Anchorage Health Department epidemiologist, Janet Johnston, resigned on Monday, effective immediately.

Johnston confirmed her resignation by phone on Tuesday. She said it was her own decision to resign.

“I thought it was time for me to move on, but I’m really proud of what we did while I was there,” she said.

She began working as the city’s epidemiologist in August 2020, advising the administrations of then-mayor Ethan Berkowitz, former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson and Mayor Dave Bronson as they dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnston said she had resigned with a week’s notice but was told to instead make the resignation immediate. The city’s epidemiologist is an appointed position, serving at the pleasure of the mayor.

Matt Shuckerow, interim spokesman for the mayor’s office, said that Bronson, the health department, and its appointed director Dave Morgan “understand that this is a loss.”

“They will be looking to work with the state of Alaska, in coordination with their state epidemiology office for the time being,” Shuckerow said. “Dave Morgan and the health department are also looking for a new person to fill into this position to take over these duties in the absence of having someone here at municipal level.”

Bronson, who took office July 1, has said that he will not require masks or implement COVID-19 restrictions in the city. While campaigning, he criticized his predecessors’ choices to implement shutdowns and other COVID-19-related mandates.

Johnston’s resignation leaves the city without an epidemiologist as COVID-19 cases are rising in Anchorage and statewide, driven largely by the more contagious delta variant.

Hospital administrators have also warned that a continuing spike in virus-related hospitalizations could soon overwhelm the state’s fragile health care system if current trends continue.

Johnston had been responsible for overseeing the city’s public health response to COVID-19, according to Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant.

“She was instrumental,” he said.

Johnston joined the Anchorage Health Department in 2016, working for about 13 months as the clinical services supervisor. She left for a job at UAA and then returned in September 2019 to work as the program manager for community, safety and development.

The city’s epidemiologist position was created in June 2020 and filled by Johnston for the first time in August 2020. It is funded with federal FEMA money, according to the mayor’s office.

Much of the position’s duties included data analysis and interpretation and reporting on the health status of Anchorage’s populations, according to the job description.

Over the last year, Johnston tracked data on COVID-19 in Anchorage and Alaska, using the information to help inform the city’s response, she said. She also coordinated with the state’s public health response, and interpreted the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health guidance, helping to tailor it to Anchorage, she said.

Her work included giving detailed weekly reports to the Assembly on the COVID-19 situation in Anchorage, including data and trends on testing, vaccinations and cases.

Constant said he looks forward to seeing what the health department’s plan going forward will be.

Still, “I am concerned that we won’t have the information we need to make educated and informed decisions,” he said.

Shuckerow said that before the pandemic, the city coordinated epidemiology services in direct partnership with the state.

“We will continue to engage with the state of Alaska to make sure that there’s adequate coverage during this time,” he said.


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