Dr. Angela Dunn’s job is ‘rock solid,’ her boss says, responding to rumors that Utah’s epidemiologist was fired

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Utah’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, got a public show of support from her boss Friday in an effort to dispel a rumor she was being fired.

“Angela’s position is rock solid and she has my full support,” Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton, the acting executive director of the Utah Department of Health, wrote in a statement tweeted Friday morning.

“There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that she is being fired,” Burton wrote. The tweet also said the rumors “are not helpful to our state’s COVID-19 response.”

Burton called Dunn “an outstanding epidemiologist, and her knowledge and insights are essential to our decision-making processes.”

Dunn has been the face of the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That role came into sharp focus last month, when a June 19 memo she wrote — warning the state may need to go into a “complete shutdown” if case counts didn’t drop to 200 a day by July 1 — became public June 22 in a Salt Lake Tribune report.

Two days later, during the state’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing, Dunn, reading from a prepared statement, said the memo was meant to be “a starting point for discussion, and written from one perspective, the public health perspective.”

In an apparent effort to reduce any friction the memo caused, Dunn added, “I’m really proud to work in a state where I feel encouraged to provide my input and my advice, and that leadership will consider it, and weigh it alongside the input from other experts in their field.”

The July 1 deadline came and went Wednesday, and the seven-day average in new cases was well over 500 per day.

Dunn’s absence from the public eye this week had fueled rumors that she may have been ousted. There was no media briefing this week, and Dunn was not in attendance Tuesday at Gov. Gary Herbert’s one public coronavirus-related event, when he greeted a planeload of face masks and other supplies arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport.

Dunn tweeted Thursday that she and her family “are spending the holiday weekend apart from others, outside in the fresh air, wearing masks IF we go anywhere else. Please do the same.” Her tweet noted that there was a surge of COVID-19 cases after Memorial Day, and “our hospitals can’t handle another one” over the Fourth of July weekend.

In early June, Dr. Robyn Atkinson-Dunn was removed from her job as director of Utah’s public health lab, after she refused to send coronavirus test samples to TestUtah’s hospital lab, which at the time had been deemed “not in compliance” with federal certification guidelines. She was transferred to a job in the health department’s epidemiology bureau, even though she is not trained as an epidemiologist.

Public health experts in some states have been fired or resigned under political pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Florida, the data expert who designed the state’s COVID-19 online dashboard was fired in May — after, she said, she defied a superior’s order to manipulate the data to match target figures for reopening Florida’s economy. In California, the chief health officer in Orange County resigned in early June over political objections to an order that people wear face masks.