State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn — who became the voice for science-based strategies for containing the coronavirus pandemic in Utah — is leaving her statewide post to instead lead Salt Lake County’s Health Department.
The 39-year-old Dunn will replace the county’s executive health director, Gary Edwards, who has held the position since 2005 and will retire in July.
Her departure from state-level policymaking opens the question of how Utah will approach controlling the pandemic in its final months — even as infections drop but persist, variants complicate the picture, and vaccines are not yet available to, or wanted by, all residents.
“I wanted [you] to find out from me, not the rumor mill. I am replacing Gary Edwards as he blissfully rides off into the retirement sunset,” Dunn wrote in an email to state health department employees Tuesday. “Your dedication to ensuring the health of Utahns is inspiring. I am forever grateful for your compassion, friendship and resilience.”
A Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman said Edwards’ replacement had not yet been shared with county employees. The county board of health plans to meet Wednesday morning to finalize details on the offer. The board makes the hiring decisions for the position, with ratification from county Mayor Jenny Wilson.
“We did recruit nationally, and we had great candidates,” Wilson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “She really had, more than anything, the spirit and energy to lead incredible employees into this post-COVID world.”
Moving forward, she said, the county still must administer vaccines as it also grapples with other long-standing public health concerns, such as air quality.
“[Dunn] comes in at a time where we will be having conversations about what does the health department of the future look like,” Wilson said, “and how do we get back to the basics at the same time?”
Dunn’s new bosses at Salt Lake County appear open to heeding advice from public health experts. Wilson enacted the state’s first mask mandate in June. Although the Republican-controlled County Council declined to extend that mandate after statewide face covering requirements ended April 10, the decision came at the recommendation of the current health director.
“From the beginning, I have said that the council should follow the data,” council Chair Steve DeBry said at a news conference April 7. “I agree with those who say that we should listen to the experts in public health as a part of the decision-making process.”
The details of Dunn’s job offer were not immediately available.
In 2020, she earned a salary of $239,000 and benefits of almost $85,000, for a total compensation of nearly $324,000, according to the state’s transparency website.
Dunn could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Edwards, the retiring county health director, earned almost $184,000 in salary and more than $61,000 in benefits for a total of more than $245,000, the state website reported. He delayed his retirement due to the pandemic, the mayor noted, and played an integral role over the past year promoting public health.
Speaking up for science
Dunn joined the state health department in 2014 on assignment from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemic intelligence service officer. She was later named the state’s deputy epidemiologist, moving up to state epidemiologist in January 2018.
Dunn’s advocacy for Utahns to wear masks and to maintain restrictions on businesses and gatherings drew staunch support from residents who donned T-shirts and posted yard signs that declared they stood with her. She became a familiar face at weekly news conferences as Utahns sought to understand the many unknowns about the pandemic.
“She’s knowledgeable, she’s a great communicator,” Wilson said. “As I look back on this difficult year, I felt comforted by her demeanor and sense of connection to the community around critical health issues.”
[Read this profile of Dr. Angela Dunn from soon after the pandemic started.]
The state’s epidemiologist also drew controversy from detractors who circulated her address on social media and gathered in front of her home to protest, questioning the public health science and best practices Dunn recommended.
“It’s scary, and wrong that someone would feel comfortable sharing my personal information,” Dunn said at the time. “It’s scary that people think it’s OK to harass civil servants.”
In the wake of those protests, the Utah Legislature passed and Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law a bill that makes protesting at someone’s residence a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.
In a statement Tuesday, Cox said that “throughout the pandemic, Dr. Dunn has been a dedicated public servant, a staunch advocate for following the science and one of my most trusted advisers.”
Cox continued: “Her expertise and facility in translating complex scientific research into plain language has been invaluable during the COVID-19 crisis.” He concluded that he will “miss having her on the state’s team, but I’m glad she will continue to serve Utahns living in Salt Lake County.”
Cox did not respond to questions about how the state will move forward in handling the pandemic when Dunn leaves her state job.
A ‘champion’ during coronavirus
The Utah Department of Health, in a statement Tuesday, said, “it’s hard to overstate the truly lifesaving contributions Dr. Dunn has made to Utah’s COVID-19 response. Whether it was her steady voice at the press briefing podium, or her capable leadership at the table where decisions are made, Dr. Dunn was always a champion for the health and well-being of Utah residents.”
Dunn has been on the forefront of the state’s response to the pandemic since the beginning. She met the Utah Jazz flight as the team returned from Oklahoma City after Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive, and she’s repeatedly briefed the press, given interviews and promoted safe practices while working to mitigate the threat.
In June 2020, a memo became public that Dunn wrote a warning the state may need to go into a “complete shutdown” if case counts didn’t drop. Then-Gov. Gary Herbert had, at that point, loosened restrictions and case counts were rising, and rumors — fueled by Dunn’s temporary disappearance from public view — swirled that the governor was about to fire her.
The speculation was widespread enough that Dunn’s boss, the then-acting executive director of the Utah Department of Health, offered up a statement of “rock-solid” support.
“There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that she is being fired,” Jefferson Burton wrote. When UDOH tweeted out his statement, it added that the rumors were “not helpful to our state’s COVID-19 response.”
Dunn later said that she missed a COVID-19 event with Herbert because she was out of town with her family. She and her husband are the parents of two boys, ages 9 and 3.
— Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.