New health officer worked closely with Snohomish County in pandemic

The outgoing health officer has “nothing but confidence” in his successor. The two say they had similar approaches to COVID.

James Lewis

James Lewis

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s leading health official, Dr. Chris Spitters, has “nothing but confidence and optimism” when it comes to his replacement.

This week, the retiring health officer gave a warm handoff to Dr. James Lewis, who’s leaving his medical epidemiologist role with King County’s public health agency. Starting Aug. 1, he’ll guide Snohomish County through what’s been described as a pivotal moment for public health here. Lewis will make $200,000 a year, according to a health district spokesperson. The contract does not have a specified end date.

Earlier this month, the county got the ball rolling on a plan to make the health district a part of county government. The move will funnel more money into the agency and help it revamp direct services that cash-strapped officials have had to nix over the years.

Lewis and Spitters have worked together across county lines during the pandemic, as Lewis helped King County address COVID-19 cases in l0ng-term care facilities.

“You quickly became our go-to guy for technical assistance early in the pandemic,” Spitters told his successor Tuesday. “Now it’s fitting that on the other end of that timeline, you’re up to bat.”

Lewis is a licensed medical doctor and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Washington.

He has a “fantastic baseline” of experience, Spitters said, “and I think he’ll take this position to heights far beyond where I’ll be able to.”

Lewis said he’s excited to kickstart more direct services, including sexual health and vaccine clinics. The department started downsizing and cutting those programs around 2008, Spitters said.

Chris Spitters (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Chris Spitters (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Priorities will be hammered out, Lewis said, once the county finishes its newest community health assessment. The broad-scale analysis looks at issues from suicide and opioid misuse to oral health, racial health disparities and cancer mortality rates.

The last assessment was completed in 2018. Work on a new one will start this fall.

In the meantime, Lewis said he’ll be working to guide Snohomish County COVID response from an “acute pandemic” stage to an “endemic” one.

Residents shouldn’t expect any major differences in the county’s COVID-19 response, Lewis said, since his approach to the pandemic has largely mirrored Spitters’ in the last two years.

“I don’t think we disagreed on anything heavily,” Lewis said of their time working together on COVID issues, “so I can’t imagine there’ll be a huge difference.”

He also doesn’t anticipate major challenges in transitioning the department into a new structure, although some details may “come down to the wire.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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