Anchorage’s public health division manager has resigned, leaving the post temporarily empty as an ongoing COVID-19 surge triggers record-level infections and strains the city’s short-staffed hospitals.
Christy Lawton resigned Monday from the position she’d held since February 2019, according to an Anchorage Health Department spokesperson. Municipal officials declined to provide any additional details, citing confidentiality concerns.
Prior to coming to the municipality, Lawton had served as director of the state Office of Children’s Services from 2010 until 2018.
On Tuesday, she declined to be interviewed but provided a statement.
“I’m proud of the work that myself and the team at AHD accomplished and have deep admiration for all the public health professionals in our community who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic,” Lawton wrote. “I strongly encourage our city’s residents to set aside politics and focus on what it’s going to take to truly get back to ‘normal’. That means more of us getting vaccinated and continuing diligent mitigation measures in the meantime. We are not safe until the majority of us are protected.”
She becomes the fourth municipal public health official to leave the department since July, when Mayor Dave Bronson was sworn in.
Alaska is in the midst of an unprecedented COVID-19 surge driven by the highly infectious delta variant, which has put the state at the top of the nation for recent new cases and recently reported deaths even as it stays below the national average for vaccination rates.
In Anchorage, COVID-19 one-day case counts spiked from just 19 on July 1 to 485 at the start of this week. The state’s largest hospital, Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, enacted crisis standards of care earlier this month after staff shortages and high numbers of COVID-positive patients made it impossible to provide treatment for everyone.
Unlike prior administrations that enacted pandemic mask requirements and capacity limits, Bronson has promised not to enact any COVID-19 restrictions and called vaccines “experimental” near the start of his term.
Former municipal epidemiologist Janet Johnston resigned in late July. David Morgan, Bronson’s appointee to direct the health department, resigned in August days ahead of a confirmation vote.
Morgan came under intense scrutiny from Anchorage Assembly members over his qualifications and comments that were viewed as downplaying the severity of the pandemic. At the time, Bronson blamed Morgan’s departure on “a political campaign against him.”
Former medical officer Dr. Bruce Chandler tendered his resignation around the same time, effective in mid-August.
Joe Gerace, a former firefighter, paramedic and Red Cross disaster responder, was appointed the new health department director by Bronson on Sept. 17.
Asked Tuesday if he could provide information about what happened with Lawton, Gerace said, “Negative. We don’t speak to employment matters.”
Health department spokesperson Chelsea Ward-Waller said the city plans to fill her position.
“We are going to be starting a search for a qualified public health division manager immediately,” Ward-Waller said.
Johnston on Tuesday said she didn’t want to speak to the reasons for Lawton’s resignation or rehash the details surrounding her own departure this summer.
“I think it’s just part of the same trend that we’re seeing,” she said. “I’m just horrified by the lack of response to the situation that we’re in right now.”
The Anchorage Assembly is considering an ordinance that would require all residents, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status, to wear masks indoors in public spaces and outdoors at large, crowded public events as a way to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The Assembly was expected to take testimony and possibly vote on the ordinance Tuesday night.
Bronson published an opinion piece Tuesday in the Daily News restating his opposition to any mask mandates and touting his administration’s role in the increase of “tests, vaccinations and monoclonal antibody treatments in consultation with one’s personal medical provider.”
Johnston, when asked about the significance of three seasoned public-health professionals leaving positions at the department, called the situation “a recognition of regardless how experienced we are, no one is listening to what we have to say.”
“I think in that situation you have a choice to make. It’s hard to know what’s the right choice,” she said. “Do you stay so you can keep advocating or do you leave because the decisions that are being made are decisions you can’t support?”