Anchorage

Citing ‘misleading’ statements on masks and COVID-19, Alaska pediatrician group questions whether Anchorage’s chief medical officer is fit for the role

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from Dr. Michael Savitt.

An organization for Alaska pediatricians denounced recent statements by the Anchorage Health Department’s chief medical officer in a letter on Thursday, calling into question his objectivity, saying he made several inaccurate statements and questioning his fitness for the role.

In the letter from members of the American Academy of Pediatrics Alaska Chapter addressed to Dr. Michael Savitt, a pediatrician and Anchorage’s chief medical officer, the physicians listed multiple points of concern about Savitt’s comments at an Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday.

Among them: Savitt’s description of Anchorage’s COVID-19 case numbers as “good” and his statements questioning the effectiveness of mask-wearing. The group also cited “grave concerns” regarding Savitt’s objectivity.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, a staunch opponent of government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, hired Savitt in July after the abrupt resignation of the health department’s epidemiologist.

[Anchorage Assembly overrides Mayor Bronson’s veto of mask emergency ordinance]

“As your colleagues and peers, as well as concerned citizens of this city, we no longer feel that you demonstrate the ability to accurately and objectively advocate for the public welfare of the residents of this community,” the physicians wrote to Savitt. “The actions of this administration suggest that either your advice has been contrary to public health best practices, or that your advice has gone totally unheeded.”

“Either way, we ask that you consider whether your role is truly adding to the fight against our common enemy: the COVID-19 pandemic,” they said.

Savitt said in an emailed statement Friday that he is disappointed with the pediatrician group’s statements and called it an attack on his character.

“They are upset with me for not supporting a mask mandate as they previously requested. My responses when asked by Anchorage Assembly members were factual and based on State of Alaska data,” Savitt said. “I have gone on record numerous times supporting vaccinations and CDC recommendations which includes proper use of masks, hand hygiene, hand washing, social distancing, and proper room ventilation.”

Savitt made the statements to the Assembly on Tuesday as the body voted to approve an emergency ordinance requiring people in the city to wear masks in indoor public areas. He was responding to a question from Assembly member Jamie Allard, who opposes the mask ordinance and requested that he “explain to members of the body just how much our COVID cases have gone down.”

“All of the numbers look good,” Savitt told Assembly members, pointing to the 14-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Anchorage.

The physicians refuted that point in the letter, citing Anchorage’s still-high COVID-19 transmission rate and limited intensive care unit capacity.

“By no standard public health definition is a rate of 115 cases per 100,000 residents per day a ‘good’ number,” they said.

Savitt said his response was factual, based on numbers he reports to the Assembly weekly and that he was “cautiously optimistic.”

“I informed them that the 14 day rolling average and reproduction number were trending downward,” Savitt said.

Additionally, the group said Savitt had inaccurately compared Anchorage School District COVID-19 cases and Anchorage’s cases when he told Assembly members he was “not quite sure that the masks are actually helping, at least where the school is concerned.”

The physicians called that point “grossly misleading,” saying that he was far under-representing the number of active COVID-19 cases in the city when he made a comparison to the number of active cases in the school district.

Savitt contended that he “did not comment on the effectiveness (of) their mask mandate.”

“I referred to the Anchorage School District with their mask mandate and their active and total case numbers,” he said.

The physicians also took issue with the way Savitt talked about wearing a mask at the meeting:

“I am vaccinated, but as a courtesy to the Assembly, because you requested we wear masks, I’m wearing one. I don’t need a mandate to tell me to wear a mask,” Savitt told Assembly members.

The physicians said that others choose to not wear masks without an order and that face coverings are “substantially more effective when ALL are wearing masks due to the source control provided to INFECTIOUS individuals.”

[Alaska reports nearly 1,000 COVID-19 cases, 2 deaths and another uptick in hospitalizations Thursday]

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear a mask regardless of vaccination status in areas of high COVID-19 transmission. Alaska’s COVID-19 case rate is currently the highest in the nation per 100,000 people over the last week, and Anchorage specifically has a high level of community transmission, per the CDC.

In the letter, the physicians wrote that Savitt’s testimony undermined previous statements he had made in support of public health measures, such as COVID-19 vaccinations. Based on listening to the testimony, the physicians wrote they understood him as not thinking Anchorage residents should wear masks in public, which goes against state and federal guidelines.

“You in your official capacity as Chief Medical Officer of the Anchorage Health Department, provided the factually dubious statements summarized above at the behest of an Assembly member, in essence testifying AGAINST one of the very public health interventions that you have previously stated you support,” the letter says.

Before taking on the new role as chief medical officer, Savitt wrote numerous politically-charged comments on a local conservative website over the course of the pandemic. Those comments criticized the Anchorage Assembly and former mayoral administrations for COVID-19 related restrictions, including previous mask mandates and questioned the effectiveness of masks as a tool against the virus.

In an emailed statement in August in response to a question about the comments, Savitt said, “my comments, by themselves, are out of context. Regardless of how and why they were made, I should have been more judicious in my responses. I would also emphasize that my work ethic compels me to leave politics out of my decision making, and how I perform my responsibilities.”

The current COVID-19 surge in Alaska, which swelled through late summer and brought case counts and virus hospitalizations to new pandemic highs, is placing an added burden on hospitals already stretched thin. In Anchorage, all three major hospitals have activated crisis standards of care to provide flexibility, liability protection and guidance on prioritization decisions when care and resources run short, although the situation varies from facility to facility and day to day.

When contacted for comment, a representative from the Alaska chapter of the AAP said over email that all of the physicians who signed the letter were busy caring for patients and that “we would like to let the letter speak for itself.”

[Read the letter:]


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