Anchorage’s new health director says COVID-19 is a very serious threat, that he’s a “firm believer” in vaccines and doesn’t envision an overhaul of the agency’s coronavirus testing and prevention efforts under the city’s incoming mayor.
“There’s a saying, ‘You don’t fix something that’s not broken,’” David Morgan said in a phone interview. “It’s one of the best programs in the state.”
Mayor Dave Bronson announced Morgan’s appointment Monday, and both started their new jobs Thursday — with Morgan’s position subject to confirmation by the Assembly.
Bronson, during his campaign, criticized municipal health mandates and closures, and he also downplayed the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic, in spite of contracting the disease himself and experiencing long-haul symptoms.
He called the COVID-19 vaccines “experimental” a few weeks ago and said he wouldn’t receive it. And at one point, he suggested that there hadn’t been a pandemic at all, though he later said he misspoke.
But with case rates dropping sharply and the city’s COVID-19 emergency formally declared over in May, department heads like Morgan now face more mundane policy choices than the emotionally charged pandemic dilemmas that Bronson and his opponents were debating on the campaign trail over the past year.
The city health department has a team of public health nurses that does vaccination and testing for diseases. It permits and inspects restaurants. It monitors and licenses Anchorage child care homes and centers, oversees the city service that responds to reports of publicly drunk or intoxicated people and centers, and funds programs that fight homelessness, sexual assault and domestic violence.
The agency has also played an important role in the city’s response to COVID-19, with its officials promoting best practices and behaviors to minimize the spread of the disease.
The agency currently leads Anchorage’s testing COVID-19 testing program, and it’s granting millions of dollars to community groups for vaccination and testing, including the Alaska Black Caucus and the United Way.
Morgan, the new health director, said he doesn’t want to disrupt those efforts, citing the fact that the city’s vaccination rate of 59% of eligible residents is higher than the state’s overall rate of 55%. He also endorsed vaccinations generally, saying he got his shot for COVID-19 in January.
“I’m vaccinated for shingles. I’m vaccinated for polio,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in that.”
Bronson, at a news conference Thursday, announced that mask-wearing would not be required in city buildings, and that vaccinations would not be required for city employees.
But both of those policies had been largely in effect under the previous administration, and when it comes to the city health department’s COVID-19 vaccination and testing programs, Bronson said he currently is not planning to make big changes.
“To the degree that I understand the programs at this time, no, I’m not,” he said.
Morgan, who is 68, is a former district chairman for the Alaska Republican Party, a longtime conservative activist and retired health care manager.
Morgan made some of his own charged social media posts over the course of the pandemic that downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 and questioned the safety of the vaccines.
“We didn’t prevent a crisis. We created one,” said one graphic reposted by Morgan in May 2020 that showed Kansas’ COVID-19 death rates as being far lower than the state’s rate of business closures.
Another quoted a comedian saying, “If you think the coronavirus panic in an election year right after three failed coup attempts against Trump is a coincidence, you might be as dumb as a rock!”
But as he prepares to lead Anchorage’s health department, with its 130 employees and $15 million municipal budget, Morgan said the posts were intended as jokes — and that he doesn’t agree with all the messages he reposted.
Morgan took down his Facebook account this week after Alaska Public Media asked about some of the posts he shared.
“I thought some of them were funny and some of them were just plain dumb, and that’s the truth of the matter,” he said. “We all make mistakes, and I want to not create any more distraction or havoc on something that was silliness or a joke.”
Meg Zaletel, who co-chairs the Assembly’s health policy committee, called Morgan’s Facebook posts “concerning” and said they’ll raise some questions during his confirmation. But she also noted that many of them were from the early months of the pandemic.
“Those posts appear to be kind of contrary to the current direction of the health department. But I guess we’ll need to hear from him,” she said.
Morgan says he’s worked in Alaska health care for 35 years, and held jobs at Providence Alaska Medical Center and two tribal health organizations, Southcentral Foundation and Eastern Aleutian Tribes. At EAT, he said, he ran five clinics and lived in the island community of Sand Point.
In recent years, he’s worked as a conservative activist on health care-related issues — including in 2015, when he led a group that fought efforts by then-Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, to expand the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled.
Walker’s administration, the health care industry and progressive lawmakers supported the expansion, which, under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was almost entirely paid for by the federal government.
But Morgan and his group opposed the effort, saying it was only supported by special interest groups, would pull money away from other government services and discourage work, since able-bodied Alaskans lose access to Medicaid if they earn less than 138% of the poverty level.
Morgan’s public activism has largely targeted the state’s health department and Medicaid spending; Anchorage’s municipal health department is far smaller, though its responsibilities are wide-ranging.
Morgan said it’s too early to say if his vision for the city department is the same as the cost-cutting agenda that he brought to his activism around state government.
“I can’t really answer that question,” he said. “Because other than the budget, just the general budget, I’ve never really looked at the operations.”