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‘That was then, this is now’: Anchorage chief medical officer addresses past pandemic comments, urges vaccinations

Dr. Michael Savitt said he does not believe in mandates and is focused on educating the public about vaccines
Published: Aug. 13, 2021 at 7:25 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As COVID-19 cases in Alaska continue to rise and the state reported zero available adult ICU beds in Anchorage on Friday, the city’s newly hired chief medical officer said he will not recommend mask mandates or capacity restrictions to Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson.

“Mandates are a political action,” said Dr. Michael Savitt during an interview with Alaska’s News Source on Friday. “That’s not something that will be a recommendation coming from us.”

The announcement of Savitt’s hire in late July was sandwiched between the departures of two of Anchorage’s top doctors. Savitt is now the Anchorage Health Department’s only full-time physician.

An Anchorage Health Department news release on July 29 said Savitt has “extensive experience with infectious diseases,” while his resume lists more than three decades of work experience as a practicing pediatrician and makes no specific mention of infectious disease experience or training.

“That actually requires a brief explanation,” Savitt said. “No formal training in a subspecialty of infectious disease, but as a pediatrician with over 35 years of experience, a lot of day-to-day experience with infectious diseases.”

Since stepping into his new role, Savitt has faced public criticism over past comments posted under his name on a conservative political blog. The comments, which Savitt confirmed he wrote, take aim at Anchorage’s elected officials, emergency health orders and masks.

In one comment, dated Nov. 11, 2020, Savitt wrote, “The masks you are so fond of do not protect anyone from this or any virus.” Days later, on Nov. 19, Savitt wrote, “These masks do nothing to help.”

“The comments were made out of context, and I’d like to just give a quick explanation,” Savitt said. “One, I was not speaking in an official capacity representing the health department, more as a private citizen. They were in response to some pretty outrageous statements made about masks. And if you, for example, walk around any given day, you will see masks being worn under the chin, not covering the mouth, not the nose, people touching surfaces and then touching the mask themselves — all of these things are part of the reason that I said they’re not helping because they’re not being used properly.”

When asked if he believes masks are helpful when worn properly, Savitt said, “absolutely.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINER: Why masks are again advised for everyone indoors

Earlier this month, during a public Anchorage Assembly Health Policy Committee meeting, Savitt said masks are a useful tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“I would love to remove politics from how we address a public health issue and what we do about it,” he told the assembly members.

Other comments posted online before Savitt’s hire call Anchorage’s former acting mayor and assembly members names and include unfounded claims that China intentionally released the coronavirus and the 2020 election was stolen.

When asked if he acknowledges that he participated in rhetoric politicizing pandemic safety measures, Savitt responded, “That was then. This is now.”

Savitt said his thoughts on many issues have evolved during the last year, and he reiterated that he was a private citizen when he posted the comments.

“I have, in my own personal choice, promised myself and others that, in my role here at the health department, my politics are left at home,” Savitt said. “I’m going to think whatever I think, but when I come here, my message has to be based on current available information.”

Savitt said he has been vaccinated for COVID-19 and is an advocate of vaccines. He believes increasing vaccination rates among Anchorage residents is the best way the city can respond to the latest surge in cases.

“I am a strong advocate in educating the public,” said Savitt. “I’d like to see that go forward. I’d like to intensify those efforts. I think in terms of vaccine hesitancy, we need to be more empathetic as to the concerns that folks have, let them tell us what those concerns are and offer suggestions to them. That might reduce their hesitancy and encourage them to get vaccinated.”

When asked if the mayor’s decision to not get vaccinated hampers the health department’s public education efforts, Savitt said, “Truthfully, I don’t think there’s as much of a conflict there as you think there may be.”

Savitt noted the mayor contracted COVID-19 several months ago.

“Someone who has had the disease and has decided in concert with their health care professional that they want to wait and see or they’re not about to get it now, or they may get it down the road, that’s a personal decision and I don’t have any problem with that,” Savitt said.

He did caution against intentionally coming in contact with COVID-19 for the purposes of gaining natural immunity, noting that exposure to the virus is dangerous for someone who is not vaccinated.

A New York Times article shared on Twitter by Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink this week reports the results of a study that found COVID-19 survivors are “more than twice as likely to become reinfected by the Delta variant if they are unvaccinated.”

READ MORE: Administrators plead with Alaskans to get vaccinated as hospitals fill up

Savitt said he is against mandates, and that mandating masks or imposing capacity restrictions on businesses are not actions he would recommend to the mayor.

“People don’t respond well to that kind of thing and I think it can be detrimental in the long run, to tell somebody what they have to do,” he said. “I think it’s more important to convince them of why they need to do something. That’s why I would not want to see mandates.”

Without the option of imposing emergency health orders as Anchorage has done in the past to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the past, Savitt was asked what the city will do to prevent more deaths.

“I’ll circle back to education,” he said. “If we can educate people, if we can address their concerns, I think the vaccination rate will go up and I think that will make all the difference.”

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