Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters is stepping down after 24 years. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters is stepping down after 24 years. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

COVID: An ‘exclamation mark’ to his long public-health career

“Going since I was 21,” departing health officer Dr. Chris Spitters will shepherd the county through the pandemic for six more months.

EVERETT — At a regular COVID-19 briefing last week, Dr. Chris Spitters likened his tenure as Snohomish County’s top health official to a “track meet.” He’s been a constant voice for locals looking for coronavirus news, directives and advice.

Now the finish line is in view. Spitters will retire next June to spend more time with his family. He’ll be 58.

The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed a wave of public health officials leaving the field, but Spitters said the public health emergency likely kept him in the game longer. His positions pays $226,452 annually.

The 60- and 70-hour work weeks required during the pandemic aren’t a new thing, he said.

“Shoot, I’ve been thinking about (retirement) for decades in some sense,” he told The Daily Herald. “… I’ve been going since I was 21. And I’m a little tired.”

Spitters has held public health roles in several counties across Washington, sometimes patching together multiple part-time positions. Before permanently taking over as Snohomish County’s health officer, he directed King County’s tuberculosis clinic and was Island County’s interim health officer.

The stress of steering Snohomish County through multiple waves of COVID-19 has been an “exclamation mark” on a long, demanding career, he said.

Spitters recalled the early days of the pandemic, when officials expected the emergency to last just a few months. That “layer of denial, or ignorance,” he said, quickly faded away. After the first confirmed U.S. case was identified in Snohomish County, officials originally thought the virus was contained.

“Although we put out that brush fire, there were many more blazing across the country,” Spitters said. “And when that came to realization, in late February, early March, I’ve never felt more stress in my professional life.”

His decision to stay onboard for another six months is partially a “selfish” one, he said. He wants to see the county make more progress against the coronavirus.

“Hopefully what’s here now and maybe coming in the next couple of months is kind of the worst of the COVID-19 experience,” he said. “It’s certainly not going to be the end of it.”

That messaging has been consistent in the last few weeks. When the first confirmed case of the omicron variant was identified in the United States earlier this month, Spitters called it a “somber reminder that elimination of COVID is an unlikely scenario.”

This week, the health district announced the new and concerning variant has been found in Snohomish County. More omicron cases are cropping up across Washington and the U.S.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County’s case rates are gradually decreasing, but not without weekly ups and downs. Its two-week case rate increased to 301 per 100,000 this week, although weekly case counts dropped from 1,310 to 1,065.

Last week, Spitters said the timing of a recent increase suggested it was the result of Thanksgiving gatherings.

Both Spitters and County Executive Dave Somers said there are no immediate plans to impose countywide restrictions on places like restaurants and bars.

Vaccine uptake has increased countywide, but that’s mainly for booster and third doses, Spitters said. The rest are pediatric doses, while “very few” unvaccinated adults are showing up to get their first dose.

Although the future is uncertain, Spitters said the county is better positioned than it was in the early stages of the pandemic, when little was known about COVID-19, vaccines were unavailable and procedures for testing and contact tracing weren’t developed. He’s confident his departure won’t leave the county in a lurch.

“I’m just one guy on a big team,” he said.

Some residents’ ire over public health directives like mask mandates and other restrictions fueled threats against a few Snohomish Health District staffers, Spitters said, which were reported to law enforcement. But Spitters said he was largely insulated from that.

“I get occasional emails that aren’t too complimentary. But never have I felt at the other end of someone’s intent to do harm,” he said. “Certainly, I’ve been at the other end of people’s frustration, pain, demand for a different way. But that’s living in a democracy, right?”

In retirement, he looks forward to things slowing down. He’ll no longer have two cell phones strapped to him, and he’ll get to spend more time with his wife.

“She’s been a great life partner,” Spitters said. “We’re step-parents to one another’s kids. I’m just lucky to be with her and lucky she’s still around after all these years.”

This article has been updated to reflect that Dr. Chris Spitters left his public health roles in King and Island counties upon being hired as Snohomish County’s permanent health officer.

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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