Retired general now leads Utah’s coronavirus response; health director reassigned over medical concerns

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Major General Jefferson Burton of the Utah National Guard and Gov. Gary Herbert at a commemoration of the centennial of WWI's Armistice, in Salt Lake City on Nov. 8, 2018.

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Stopping the spread of the coronavirus has been compared to waging war, and now Utah has tapped a leader with decades of military experience to lead its fight against the disease.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday appointed a former leader of the Utah National Guard, Adjutant General Jefferson Burton, to coordinate day-to-day operations of the Department of Health during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The department’s executive director, physician Joseph K. Miner, was reassigned to work at home on duties other than day-to-day operations because he has health issues that make him more susceptible to COVID-19 and prevent him from safely coming into the office, where Herbert said a “boots on the ground” effort is required.

“General Burton has got a significant background not only in the military, but in disaster planning and response,” Herbert said. “So his abilities and training will make him ideal to come in and help us ramp up this surge effort.”

It’s a big task — one Burton, 60, said he is prepared to do.

“I’ve dedicated my professional life to protecting Utah residents from threats, both man-made and natural,” he said in a statement. “The threat we now face is unlike any I have ever seen, and I am committed to doing what I can to once again protect Utah residents during these uncertain times.”

The governor said Tuesday that Burton will join the state’s unified command staff, who are responsible for protecting health, stabilizing the economy and keeping residents informed.

The state is facing a major deficit of personal protective equipment, and specifically masks. Herbert said the state has a stockpile of 27,000 — but that it needs anywhere from 2 to 3 million. The state is also about 2,000 tests short of its daily testing goal of 7,000, the governor said.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn initially said Tuesday that she had just learned of Burton’s 90-day appointment and added she would “reserve any judgment” before meeting him, when asked about his lack of a medical background.

She said later, “I feel very confident in his leadership skills and his desire to protect the health and safety of Utah residents. He understands we are in the midst of a public health crisis and I’m happy to have him in our corner.”

Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said it’s too early to describe the specifics of Burton’s role, other than he’ll lead the department’s daily work and ensure a “robust and coordinated response” to the virus. Miner will be available to consult on key decisions, Hudachko said.

According to a 2020 study on the backgrounds of state health officials who are the executive and administrative leaders of their state’s public health agencies, nearly 65% of respondents said they had a medical degree. Just under 50% said they had a formal public health degree, and nearly 22% said they had a management degree.

Over 70% of all respondents has experience working in governmental public health before leading state health organizations. The study’s abstract said such state health leadersplay a key role in policy development, must be versed in the relevant/current evidence, and provide expertise about health issues to the legislature and the governor.”

Burton said in his statement that while he doesn’t have a background in medicine, his disaster recovery response experience is applicable. “Further, I recognize competence and commitment when I see it, and that is what I saw this afternoon in meeting with staff,” he said.

Hudachko also noted the director of the state health department before Miner, David Patton, did not have a background in public health or medicine. Before Patton first joined the department as its chief operating officer, he was the director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah and led Gov. Jon Huntsman’s second gubernatorial transition team. He was appointed as the department’s director in 2011.

Sharon Talboys, president of the Utah Public Health Association, said she thinks Burton’s military background will be helpful.

COVID-19 is “probably going to be the most significant public health crisis of our lifetime,” Talboys said. “So I do welcome his experience in emergency management.”

Burton joined the military as a soldier in 1982, was in the Reserve Office Training Corps at Brigham Young University and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1984. He served six years in the Military Police Corps and returned to the Utah Army National Guard in 1991, according to a news release on his later retirement.

His many roles in the Guard included serving as company commander and battalion executive officer, and he deployed as commander of the 1457th Engineer Combat Battalion as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Four years later, he was named assistant commander of the Utah Army National Guard, overseeing more than 5,500 soldiers. He was promoted to commander of the Utah Air and Army National Guard — overseeing 7,500 service members — in 2012. He retired from that position in November 2019.

Lt. Col. D.J. Gibbs, a spokesman for the Utah National Guard, served under Gibbs in Iraq and thinks Burton has the “perfect” skill set for the job.

Gibbs said that’s “because he has such a strong working knowledge of not just the military, but how the government works, how they work in sync with the community, how we can all work together to get through this.” Gibbs added: “He’s just a really good, steady leader.”

Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this story.