In late October, Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) staff learned that Public Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz had been abruptly fired from his job. The reason for the firing was not immediately made public, and many PROTEC17 members were outraged at the perceived political maneuver that removed a well-respected official from his position just as COVID-19 case numbers were skyrocketing in the community. The Health Officer position is pivotal to making key decisions at SRHD – especially in times of crisis.
Lutz had been a well-respected figure in the community and was the face of the public health response to the pandemic.He had a reputation for speaking up for underserved communities, making tough decisions when the data supported it, and acting as a facilitator for local community groups to collaborate. Many members who had worked with Lutz for years were galvanized to take action.
Three rallies were held in the span of a week to show support for Dr. Lutz. Hundreds of community members gathered in masks, and abided by social-distancing protocols, to let SRHD administrator Amelia Clark know they did not approve of her decision to fire Lutz in the midst of a global pandemic.
PROTEC17 teamed up with the Washington State Nurses’ Association (WSNA) to send a letter to the Spokane Regional Board of Health. Simultaneously, members decided to hold a ‘Vote of No Confidence’ for Administrator Clark’s handling of Lutz’s termination.
A public meeting to discuss the firing was scheduled, and despite the short 48-hour notice, over 5,000 letters and emails were submitted by community members, public health workers, and friends of Dr. Lutz, asking the Board to reverse the firing. Unfortunately, Board members were not swayed.
Disappointed, but not deterred, PROTEC17 members continued to write letters and speak out to the media. A Washington State Board of Health meeting was held on November 9, and after hearing multiple complaints and public testimony from the Spokane community, they voted to open an investigation. The independent investigation will focus on whether Clark violated state law when she removed Dr. Lutz from his position before a public meeting was held.
Additionally, a new group was formed — the Public Health Action Coalition Teams of Spokane (PHACTS). The coalition includes health care, labor, education, non-profits, political and community groups, and business associations who will work together to hold those accountable who have betrayed public trust. The group will file the necessary complaints with appropriate state agencies in charge of health, governance, and transparency, and respond immediately to future instances of public health being undermined in Spokane.
Though this event was traumatic for many PROTEC17 members, and an unnecessary disruption to the important work they do, it showed that when we stand together we can make a difference.