Anchorage

Anchorage Health Department director’s confirmation vote expedited as Assembly raises questions over pandemic-related comments

As the coronavirus pandemic again surges in Anchorage, the confirmation vote for Mayor Dave Bronson’s health department director appointee, David Morgan, has been expedited over worries about his qualifications and recent comments he has made about the pandemic. It has been moved from Aug. 24 to Aug. 10, Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said.

“Everyone who comes before us will receive a fair hearing,” Constant said. “It takes six affirmative votes to be confirmed. And I don’t know if those votes are there.”

Some Assembly members had requested it be expedited over their concerns with recent statements Morgan has made about the pandemic in news interviews and social media posts, he said.

A city health department spokeswoman said Morgan was not available for an interview. A spokesman for the mayor’s office said that Assembly members’ questions will be answered on Tuesday during a confirmation hearing.

Some Assembly members said they are concerned about a comment Morgan made during an interview with Alaska’s News Source last week, in which he avoided a question about whether the pandemic is ongoing.

“I really can’t answer that,” he said. “I think it’s a, it’s a definitional — it’s a personal view kind of thing. I would not, we are not in a state of emergency, and that’s what I go by for. Pandemic is an adjective that describes a situation.”

He later told Alaska’s News Source that he was speaking to the concept of an emergency declaration, and feels that if a person is unvaccinated, they are in a pandemic.

Morgan has said that he is vaccinated himself. Bronson, in an interview last week, said he was not vaccinated, and also reiterated that he will not require masks in the city or implement COVID-19 precautions like capacity restrictions. Bronson made criticizing previous mayors’ pandemic restrictions, and the Assembly’s support for them, a key part of his campaign.

The Anchorage Health Department director oversees a staff of about 130 and a $14.7 million budget. It is largely responsible for the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, overseeing vaccine distribution and COVID-19 testing.

According to Morgan’s resume, he has more than 30 years of health care management experience, including working for Southcentral Foundation and Providence hospital.

“Solidifying leadership within the health department during a time when we’re seeing an increase in COVID infections is critical,” Assembly member Meg Zaletel said.

During a previous interview with the Daily News, Morgan compared the choice to wear a mask to the choice to wear a suit and tie to work.

“...some individuals wear masks and some don’t. It’s sort of like some people wear a tie like I do, and a suit, at work in the health department, and some people don’t. We don’t push that. We want people to be comfortable and feel safe,” Morgan said.

Zaletel said for her, the comment draws questions.

“For a lot of our children, who are under age 12, it is not a wardrobe choice. It is a health and safety measure, it is something that keeps them from getting sick, and so I feel like that was rather cavalier attitude and didn’t really think about those who haven’t been eligible to get vaccinated,” Zaletel said. “So I have a lot of questions. A lot of concerns that have led to a lot of questions I’m hoping can get answered at the confirmation hearing.”

Constant said that Morgan’s politically charged posts about the pandemic on social media that minimized its seriousness, first reported by Alaska Public Media, have also drawn attention. The account has since been taken down. Morgan told Alaska Public Media that he thought some of the posts he shared were funny, while others were “just plain dumb.”

Constant said members of the public have emailed Assembly members with concerns about Morgan as health department director.

Assembly members also said they were concerned about reports circulating on social media on Morgan’s work performance at previous jobs. One person on social media detailed an experience they had working with Morgan at a local nonprofit, questioning his competency. The Daily News has not been able to confirm those reports.

Many of the issues are likely to be discussed on Tuesday, during a confirmation hearing for Morgan before the vote next week, Constant said.

“I am certain there will be a lot of questions about the pandemic, his philosophy, his qualifications, choices, his experience, why there are members of the public saying such things about him — are they true — all that is on the table,” Constant said.

Still, some Assembly members say the are likely to support Morgan.

Member Crystal Kennedy said that the mayor should be able to choose who has leadership roles in his administration. Despite concerns with appointees from previous administrations, Kennedy voted to approve them all, she said.

“I‘m sticking with the same kind of principle, and that is that the mayor gets to choose who the mayor thinks can best run their departments,” Kennedy said.

Bronson last week also announced the appointment of Dr. Michael Savitt, who will serve as the health department’s chief medical officer, taking over the duties of epidemiologist Janet Johnston, who resigned last week.

Zaletel said she was encouraged to hear Savitt during a news conference last week promoting mask wearing for unvaccinated individuals and vaccinations as a safe and effective tool against the virus.

Others have raised concerns about Savitt’s online comments on a local conservative website before he was appointed. Those comments have criticized Assembly members over pandemic-related shutdowns and mask mandates, and questioned the effectiveness of masks.

In one post, Savitt said that masks “do not protect anyone from this or any virus.”

In response to a question about the post, Savitt said via a health department spokeswoman, “CDC guidance and recommendations on masking keep changing. We are following CDC guidance.”

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