Anchorage’s government has a new chief medical officer: Dr. Michael Savitt, a pediatrician who’s active in the city’s conservative political circles.
The administration of new Mayor Dave Bronson announced the new hire at a meeting with reporters Thursday. During the meeting, Savitt touted the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine but Bronson reiterated his refusal to get it, calling the shots “experimental.”
Administration officials also said they don’t want to “stoke fear” about the pandemic, and argued that hospitals have “tremendous extra capacity” to handle COVID-19. This comes two days after hospital executives called their own news conference to warn of an impending crisis amid a sharp spike in cases.
“This administration is committed to ensuring we have an adequate response to the COVID pandemic in our community,” said Municipal Manager Amy Demboski.
Bronson, a Republican, was elected this year after campaigning against the mask mandate and other pandemic-related restrictions on businesses put in place by his predecessors and the city Assembly. He’s also downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus, at one point questioning whether a pandemic ever occurred.
COVID cases had reached rock-bottom levels when Bronson was sworn in earlier this month. But he’s faced increasing questions about his response in the past two weeks, as the hyper-contagious delta variant has driven cases to their highest level in six months.
Bronson contracted COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic and experienced long-haul symptoms. But at Thursday’s meeting, he repeated his opposition to mask mandates and other measures to counter the virus’ spread, including capacity restrictions.
“What I do is my business, and what the individual does is their business,” Bronson said. “I’m not here to tell people to wear masks or get vaccinated. My focus as a government leader is to provide the absolute best information that’s available.”
Bronson said he hired Savitt as part of that information-sharing effort.
In lengthy remarks Thursday before being interrupted by Bronson’s spokesman, Savitt described the COVID-19 vaccines as safe and effective, and he also tried to counter misinformation surrounding the shots, like the myth that they can affect fertility.
“What we know to be true is the risk-benefit ratio is greatly in favor of protection and a good outcome from these vaccines,” he said.
Savitt also called mask-wearing an important tool to stop infected people from transmitting the virus to others.
In a prepared statement, Bronson’s administration said Savitt, 68, is licensed to practice in five states and cited his work experience in New Jersey and New Mexico. The statement did not reference any work experience in Alaska, though state records show that Savitt holds an active medical license here.
They also show that Savitt is a board member of a group, Alaskans for Real Cures for Homelessness, that fought plans by the Assembly and previous mayors’ administrations to develop properties for shelters and drug treatment in city neighborhoods.
Savitt also appears to be active in conservative politics. He signed an open letter that circulated among Alaska Republicans in January that said there was a “concerted effort to steal this election from President Trump.”
And as the administration’s meeting with reporters was finishing, its liberal critics were already highlighting comments on a conservative news website, Must Read Alaska, posted under Savitt’s name. One of them called Anchorage Assemblyman Chris Constant a “fool”; another said “masks do nothing to help” block the spread of COVID-19.
Through a spokeswoman for the Anchorage Health Department, Savitt responded that commonly used masks are not for medical use and N95 masks are preferable but are used less because of their cost. He said his comment about the masks on the blog “would have been more appropriate in saying masks appear to be of limited value.” He said the health department follows the recommendations of the CDC.
Savitt started his job this week and the health department said he’s filling the position held by the former city epidemiologist, Janet Johnston, until a permanent replacement can be found.
Johnston left her job earlier this week, saying she and Bronson had different ideas about how to respond to the pandemic. Another longtime Anchorage health department doctor, Bruce Chandler, remains in his position as a medical officer, the health department’s statement said.
This story has been updated.