Spokane Health Officer terminated after a tumultuous week

by Rachel Ayres | News Editor

Bob Lutz was terminated Thursday evening as the result of a four-hour special meeting held virtually by the Spokane Regional Health District’s Board of Health. He had served as the Health Officer of SRHD and a key leader in the Spokane region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 SRHD’s administrative officer Amelia Clark first announced that she had asked Lutz to resign on October 29. The next day, a press conference was held which resulted in confusion over whether Lutz had been fired or if he had resigned. Also, questions still lingered about why his termination was even being discussed, with Amelia Clark and other SRHD officials repeatedly citing “personnel issues”.  

Members of the Spokane community showed their support for Lutz over the weekend by protesting in front of SRHD’s downtown office as well as writing letters. Whitworth’s own president, Beck Taylor, wrote a letter supporting Lutz in which he called Lutz “an invaluable partner to me and to Whitworth University’s Covid-19 response efforts.” 

“[Lutz] knows Whitworth well. His fingerprints are really all over our health protocols and he has played a very important role in developing those and helps us keep track of them and continues to advise Whitworth on various issues as we try to maintain a good public health posture,” Taylor said prior to Lutz’s termination. 

Multiple staff and faculty worked closely with Lutz in the planning stages of Whitworth’s reopening. Randy Michaelis is the dean of the School of Continuing Studies and Graduate Admissions, as well as the lead member of the COVID Response Team for the university. 

“We often will make a plan, think it is a good plan, then we will put it in front of Bob Lutz. He’ll suggest some changes to that. A good example is the plexiglass in the dining hall,” Michaelis said.  

 Both Michaelis and Taylor attested to the benefits of having Lutz be so familiar with Whitworth’s operations and responses for COVID-19. For example, this extensive understanding was helpful when, on October 20, Gov. Jay Inslee released a proclamation which added multiple steps and precautions for colleges and universities. 

“Because of Dr. Lutz’s knowledge of what we were doing, he was able to advocate on behalf of Whitworth to the State Department of Health and to the governor’s office to allow Whitworth to continue in the ways in which we were operating,” Taylor said.  

Michaelis has worked with SRHD before during his experience in administration, especially throughout breakouts of measles and mumps on campus. He considers himself “familiar” with the work of the department as well as the people. However, recently he – and many other Spokane community members – understood the makeup of the board for the first time. 

According to SRHD’s website, the board is made up of three Spokane County commissioners, three Spokane City Council members, two Spokane Valley City council members and the mayor of Millwood, as well as three members appointed by the commissioners. 

“There are no medical people assigned to the [Health Board] …I was shocked,” Michaelis said. “That really surprised me. I did not know that. And that makes me suspicious that there could be politics involved in this.”  

 Michaelis also spoke to the timing of this turnover for the second highest role of the SRHD.  

“If it is just an interpersonal [issue] or a power struggle, then the timing of this is particularly bad. We’re in a pandemic and the counts in Spokane County have increased,” Michaelis said.  

Lutz was replaced Thursday night by Dr. Francisco Velazquez, who will act as the interim health officer until the board’s next meeting in December.  

“I realize that there is disagreement on his firing. But from our perspective, he was our Dr. Fauci who was an unflappable source of wisdom and expertise who helped us navigate this challenging time in our history,” Michaelis said. 

To learn more about the SRHD, log on to https://srhd.org/. To watch the October 30 press conference and the November 5 special video, watch the videos on SRHD’s YouTube channel,  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSCSSN2fLxstLbtNfKBE5OA